J. Gunnar Trumbull

Philip Caldwell Professor of Business Administration

Gunnar Trumbull is a Professor at the Harvard Business School, where he teaches in the Business, Government, and the International Economy area. Trumbull graduated from Harvard College in 1991 and earned a Ph.D. in political science from M.I.T. in 1999. He joined the Harvard Business School faculty in 2001, where his research focuses on European political economy.

Trumbull's core interest is with consumer politics. He is author of Consumer Capitalism: Politics, Product Markets, and Firm Strategy in France and Germany (Cornell University Press, 2006), which explores the political roots of consumer protection policies that emerged in France and Germany beginning in the 1970s. He is also the author of two new books. Strength in Numbers: The Political Power of Weak Interests (Harvard University Press, 2012) investigates the sources of interest group influence on in public policy. He argues that diffuse groups like consumers are more influential, and industry less influential, than we commonly assume. Consumer Credit in Postwar America and France: The Political Construction of Economic Interest (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming) explores the politics and business of consumer lending over the 20th century. He argues that America came to see credit as a form of welfare policy that could take the place of an expansive welfare state.

Trumbull also conducts research on technology policy. His book Silicon and the State: French Innovation Policy in the Internet Age (2004) traces France's policy response in the late-1990s to the apparent success of the Silicon Valley model of technology innovation.
  1. Strength in Numbers: The Political Power of Weak Interests

    Many consumers feel powerless in the face of big industry’s interests. And the dominant view of economic regulators (influenced by Mancur Olson’s book The Logic of Collective Action, published in 1965) agrees with them. According to this view, diffuse interests like those of consumers are too difficult to organize and too weak to influence public policy, which is determined by the concentrated interests of industrial-strength players. Gunnar Trumbull makes the case that this view represents a misreading of both the historical record and the core logic of interest representation. Weak interests, he reveals, quite often emerge the victors in policy battles.

    Based on a cross-national set of empirical case studies focused on the consumer, retail, credit, pharmaceutical, and agricultural sectors, Strength in Numbers develops an alternative model of interest representation. The central challenge in influencing public policy, Trumbull argues, is not organization but legitimation. How do diffuse consumer groups convince legislators that their aims are more legitimate than industry’s? By forging unlikely alliances among the main actors in the process: activists, industry, and regulators. Trumbull explains how these “legitimacy coalitions” form around narratives that tie their agenda to a broader public interest, such as expanded access to goods or protection against harm. Successful legitimizing tactics explain why industry has been less powerful than is commonly thought in shaping agricultural policy in Europe and pharmaceutical policy in the United States. In both instances, weak interests carried the day.

  2. Consumer Capitalism: Politics, Product Markets, and Firm Strategy in France and Germany

    "The unfettered marketplace, in which uncertainty rules and the admonition caveat emptor ('let the buyer beware') dictates each consumer decision, has today virtually disappeared. Consumers have become the focus of intensive economic policymaking designed to protect them from the risks and disappointments of the market. . . . Today, arguably no other economic actor in the advanced industrial countries—not the investor, not the worker, not the welfare recipient—enjoys a more thorough set of legal and institutional protections than the modern consumer when he or she enters the corner store."—from the Introduction

    Gunnar Trumbull investigates the origins of national systems of consumer protection in France and Germany, where, in the early 1970s, consumer groups and producers organized to advance their own ideas about the identity and interests of the affluent consumer. Through a comparison of eight areas of policy—product liability law, product safety standards and recall, misleading advertising, comparative product tests, product labeling, quality standards, consumer contracts, and pricing—Trumbull shows that different conceptions of the consumer interest emerged in the two countries. The result was the development of distinctive national consumption regimes, which have in turn influenced the market strategies of domestic producers.

    Trumbull's findings help to clarify distinctive national approaches to recent product crises—including cases of BSE and genetically modified foods. His research suggests that, in the age of consumer capitalism, national competitiveness may hinge not only on endowments of labor and capital, but also on the institutional forms of national consumption.