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. The Politics of Consumer Credit

    A combination of factors has dramatically increased consumer access to and reliance upon credit across the OECD. These factors include financial liberalization and deregulation, improvements in consumer credit information and its analysis, and a growth in debt securitization. Yet this period of unprecedented credit access has coincided with a decline in average real wages. National governments have responded by enacting new regulations governing consumer bankruptcy, financial data privacy, consumer advocacy, and interest rate caps. This project traces the politics of consumer credit regulation in France, Germany and Britain during the postwar period.
  2. The Political Power of Weak Interests

    One of the most broadly accepted theoretical claims of public policy is the proposal that interests shared by a large set of actors tend to be under-represented in public policy. From Mancur Olson to George Stigler to James Q. Wilson, our most influential theorists of organization and public policy argue that diffuse interests must therefore be weak interests. The logic of their case is familiar and compelling. Large numbers of individuals are difficult to organize. And when the benefits of organization cannot be excluded from the general public, individuals will have insufficient incentives to support a collective lobbying effort. These coordination problems make organizing diffuse interests a harder job than organizing concentrated interests. Yet everywhere we look, diffuse interests are strongly represented. Consumers have benefited from progressive trade liberalization. Competition policy has broken apart concentrated producers with monopoly pricing power. Modern retailing has given rural consumer access to an extraordinary variety of products at extremely low prices. Small shareholders enjoy powerful legal protections against manipulation by powerful block-holders.

    This book project explores why diffuse interests are so heavily represented in public policy, and why narrow interest groups that subvert more diffuse economic or social interests do so at their peril. Through a study of policies in agriculture, pharmaceuticals, retailing, and consumer credit, I explore how diffuse interest come to be represented, and the strategies that concentrated industry interests employ to achieve their interests.

  3. The Politics of Food

    This project explores the origins and evolution of national food cultures, emphasizing the sources of variation in terms of quality, safety, and 'sophistication'. Comparing food cultures in postwar Italy, France, and America, I argue that distinctive national patterns of food production and consumption have their roots in the differential ability of small producers and distributors to protect themselves against powerful agricultural, industrial and distribution interests. The product will be a book-length manuscript entitled: "Good Food, Bad Food."