My research interests are primarily concerned with the theoretically informed measurement, description and explanation of trends in aggregate profitability in developed capitalist economies since the 1960s. Much of this work involves exploring trends in real wages and labour productivity, and the changing relation between labour productivity and capital intensity. The approach I have taken has been strongly influenced by the work of Duncan Foley, and also by Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy.
My work is situated within the classical surplus-based tradition in economics that culminated in the writings of Karl Marx. One of the striking features of this tradition has been its difficulty in addressing actual trends of contemporary capitalist development. A common approach has been either to abandon empirical investigation in favour of high theory, or to engage with the empirical world in a theoretically cavalier manner. This context of a divorce between theory and empirical evidence has formed the background to my research.
While the 'transformation problem' was my original focus, I spent most of the 1980s trying simultaneously to retain its insights and to escape its incubus. I managed this to my own satisfaction by early 1992 shortly after the beginning of an extended stay in Sydney. While working with colleagues in Political Economy at the University of Sydney, I began to concentrate on the macroeconomic history of developed capitalist countries from a surplus-based perspective, and I continued this on my return to Queen Mary in 1994. This has necessitated coming to terms with rival attempts at surplus-based empirical accounts of capitalism, and confronting notions of productive and unproductive labour.
The latter in particular has been controversial. The distinction between productive and unproductive labour is meaningless within the neoclassical tradition. This is hardly surprising, since the distinction is based on that between the production of value and the production of use-value, and neoclassical economics essentially recognises only the latter. But the distinction is also questioned by many who otherwise work in the classical surplus-based tradition, and even among those who accept the distinction, there is not a secure and stable common understanding of how the boundary should be drawn between the two concepts. Finally, data problems in applying the categories empirically are considerable.
One of the consequences of this research has been an increasing focus on the extraordinary growth in inequality in income distribution in the US economy, and much of my current work is concerned with how to understand this within a class approach to political economy. This entails exploring the quantitative dimension of class relations.
Considering how a surplus-based approach can be used to understand the recent history of contemporary capitalism involves inter alia an assessment of the contemporary relevance of empirical analogues of the categories of Marx's Capital. This does involve an interpretation of Marx's Capital, but my focus is on the usefulness of its categories today and not on issues of doctrinal exegesis in the history of economic thought (interesting though these sometimes might be).