Catherine Rampell

New York, N.Y.

 Catherine Rampell is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post. She frequently covers economics, public policy, politics and culture, with a special emphasis on data-driven journalism. She is also a political and economic commentator for CNN and an occasional special correspondent for PBS Newshour. Before joining The Post, she wrote about economics and theater for the New York Times. Rampell has received the Weidenbaum Center Award for Evidence-Based Journalism and is a Gerald Loeb Award finalist. She grew up in southern Florida and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton University. 
Honors & Awards:
  • Weidenbaum Center Award for Evidence-Based Journalism, 2010
  • Gerald Loeb Award, Finalist, 2011
  • Gerald Loeb Award, Finalist, 2012
  • Gerald Loeb Award, Finalist, 2018
  • Gerald Loeb Award, Finalist, 2019
Recent Articles

THE MILLENNIAL VIEW

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Rampell clients only)

By CATHERINE RAMPELL

WASHINGTON -- So far, under the auspices of the Trump presidency, we've been quite lucky.

It's a weird perspective, I know, given the doom and gloom that often fills these pages. But Americans have indeed enjoyed relatively good fortune in the following sense: Most of our crises, political challenges and public embarrassments thus far have been almost completely Trump-generated. That's true both domestically (Cabinet scandals, administrative chaos, government shutdowns, etc.) and internationally (trade wars, diplomatic insults, Helsinki-gate, etc.).

But a major (BEG ITAL)external(END ITAL) economic or geopolitical shock? So far, President Trump -- and thankfully the rest of us -- haven't yet been tested.

That means we haven't had to deal with however this administration might handle, or more likely bungle, such a challenge. And we likewise haven't seen how resilient his political support would be if the economy continued to weaken.

Unfortunately, our luck could be running out.

Over the weekend, an attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities knocked out about half of Saudi oil output, which translates to about 6% of total global production. The Saudi government has been scrambling to repair the damage, but it reportedly could take weeks or even months to return to full capacity. After this news broke, oil prices spiked 20% -- the biggest intraday surge in nearly three decades -- before scaling back on Monday.

Now, whether this is a wholly non-Trump-generated event is somewhat debatable, particularly given Iran's suspected role and Trump's repeated saber-rattling with Iran. But regardless, let's think through the consequences:

In 2017, Trump inherited an economy well into recovery. For the most part, he managed not to spoil it. Job growth continued apace, and a deficit-financed tax cut provided a short-term boost to gross domestic product growth.

Recently, though, the U.S. economy has been showing signs of fragility.

Manufacturing is arguably already in recession. Despite Trump's magical tax cut, business investment fell in the second quarter, and it may fall further in the months ahead.

Consumers are still the engine of the U.S. economy, but some measures of both consumer and small business confidence look troubling. Last week, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 6 in 10 Americans expect a recession within a year. Consumers also face a new tax on many goods, assuming Trump's coming rounds of China tariffs actually materialize.

Now add to all this yet (BEG ITAL)another(END ITAL) blow to consumers in the form of higher gasoline prices if the spike in oil prices is sustained.

To be sure, gas prices have been relatively low lately. So even if voters blame Trump for slightly higher gas prices, they may not ditch him over that alone. The bigger threat is whether it could be the straw that breaks the back of the broader economy: thanks to both the initial oil shock itself, plus fears over whether our erratic and "locked and loaded" president will undertake military action that creates even greater supply disruption.

The U.S. economy is less sensitive to oil shocks today than it was when, say, Jimmy Carter was president. But it's still sensitive.

"The shock is relatively new so we will have to see how long we stay at those elevated levels of oil prices," says Torsten Slok, chief economist at Deutsche Bank Securities. "But in itself this oil shock can add to the negative sentiment already hanging over corporate America and the U.S. consumer from the trade war and slowing global growth."

To be fair, some economists are more optimistic. Pantheon Macroeconomics chief economist Ian Shepherdson told me he thinks higher oil prices could boost overall growth. Higher prices could encourage oil companies to do more capital spending; that greater capital spending might more than offset any reduction in consumer spending.

Even if his take is correct, though, Shepherdson acknowledges that the "distributional effects might not be favorable to Trump." Partly (BEG ITAL)because(END ITAL) it's so capital intensive, the oil extraction industry today employs relatively few people and is unlikely to hire a lot more; and even if higher prices make Trump more popular with a few oilmen (and -women) in Texas, it might make him way less popular with consumers in Wisconsin.

We still don't yet know the full effect of the attack, or what the White House perceives its political interests to be. Maybe oil markets will snap back to normal soon enough, and we won't have to wait to see if Trump taps the strategic petroleum reserve or reverses his Iran strategy a few more times.

Even so, it still seems unlikely that Trump's lucky streak will continue indefinitely. Which is why it would sure be nice if the U.S. economy were not so reliant on luck right now.

Catherine Rampell's email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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Video Embed Code

Video: While meeting with Bahrain's crown prince Sept. 16, President Trump spoke about the recent attacks on Saudi oil installations and denied wanting war with Iran. (The Washington Post)(The Washington Post)

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THE MILLENNIAL VIEW

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Rampell clients only)

By CATHERINE RAMPELL

The Trump administration recently revealed its grand plan for turbocharging economic growth: Make Drinking Water Dirty Again.

The talking heads who get trotted out to defend President Trump frequently tout his supposedly stellar economic record. He's unleashing gangbusters growth, they claim. You might not like the tweets, but you can't deny that his tax cuts and deregulation have jump-started the economy.

But those tax cuts, so far, have been a bust, never delivering the sustained surge in business investment that Trump surrogates promised. In fact, business investment (BEG ITAL)shrank(END ITAL) last quarter, and recent indicators suggest it could weaken further. That's partly because of Trump's trade wars, of course.

Major independent forecasters predict that the economy will grow about 2.2% in 2019. As I noted in a recent column, that means we added $2 trillion to federal deficits to get us to … the average growth rate we saw during President Barack Obama's second term.

Well done, Mr. President.

Moreover, Trump surrogates have never provided actual evidence for the assumed straight line between the president's deregulatory agenda and economic growth.

So let's consider the kinds of federal regulations that Trump has been rolling back, the ones that are supposedly boosting the economy.

As a case study, take the administration's decision Thursday to formally repeal a rule that granted expanded federal oversight of U.S. waterways. We are reverting to water-pollution standards from 1986 -- a year from Trump's favorite decade, which was not exactly a high-water mark, so to speak, for environmental protections.

For context, this is one of many deregulatory actions Trump has taken to allow more pollution. Others include allowing power plants to dump more lead, arsenic and mercury into the water; relaxing restrictions on the release of methane and fine particulate matter into the air; and legalizing a pesticide linked to brain damage in children.

This latest case involved the bodies of water the federal government can protect under the Clean Water Act, which makes it illegal to pollute a "water of the United States" without a permit. An Obama administration rule clarified that "waters of the United States" include streams and wetlands that feed larger waterways, including those used for drinking water. The government cost-benefit analysis it produced at the time found that this rule produced net economic benefits.

The Trump administration's cost-benefit analysis, however, came to the opposite conclusion -- chiefly because it abruptly decided that the largest category of benefits previously attributed to the rule could no longer be quantified (BEG ITAL)at all(END ITAL). (The Trump administration said the research that had been used to quantify the benefits of protecting wetlands was too old, even though it cited even older research elsewhere in the same report.)

Therefore, these benefits were effectively assigned a value of zero. Voila, the rule must go.

This legerdemath aside, it's not exactly clear how allowing greater water pollution would help supercharge economic growth. Sure, it might save some business a few bucks to be able to just dump toxic waste into a local tributary without a permit, but it's difficult to argue this kind of thing has a substantial positive impact on the overall economy or public welfare.

After all, it's generally less costly to not pollute the water system in the first place than to try to clean it up once it's already polluted. Just ask Flint, Michigan.

More broadly, this episode helps illustrate how Trump's allegedly economy-enhancing deregulatory agenda often relies on a false dichotomy: If a policy is pro-environment, it must not be pro-business.

But, in fact, several of the Trump administration's harmful deregulatory actions have faced significant (BEG ITAL)opposition(END ITAL) from the very businesses the administration claims to be helping.

Major players in the fossil-fuel industry have opposed that methane emissions relaxation I mentioned earlier, because they want to be able to make a credible case that natural gas can be clean and climate-friendly (or in any event, cleaner and climate-friendlier than some alternatives).

The auto industry has likewise opposed the administration's rollback of fuel-efficiency standards. Four major automakers hashed out a deal with California that sets efficiency floors above federal requirements and provides automakers more regulatory certainty so they can plan for the future. The supposedly pro-business Trump administration's response was to weaponize the Justice Department, launching a bogus antitrust investigation into the automakers.

The cumulative economic costs of such actions -- based on damage to the environment, human health and rule of law -- may be hard to fully quantify. But we know they're not zero.

Catherine Rampell's email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

THE MILLENNIAL VIEW

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Rampell clients only)

By CATHERINE RAMPELL

First, they came for the unemployment rate, and we brushed it off as tinfoil-hat nonsense.

Then they came for crowd sizes, and we laughed at the absurdity.

The next victim was the deficit, which they said was shrinking even as we saw it rising; also climate data, which they denigrated, doctored or disappeared without a trace. But we said, eh, they always do that, no big deal.

They purged the data-crunchers who tabulate crop prices and other agricultural statistics, and we ignored it because we weren't farmers. They even came for the yield curve, which they said hadn't inverted when it had, but also that even (BEG ITAL)if(END ITAL) it did invert, the inversion would mean the opposite of what everyone knows it means.

Now, they've come for the weather forecast. And if earlier episodes in President Trump's war on statistics threatened livelihoods, this one threatens lives.

For a week, Trump obsessively insisted that his errant tweet about Hurricane Dorian's threat to Alabama was correct. The episode included a moment so ridiculous it would have been too broad even for the HBO comedy series "Veep": Last Wednesday, Trump showed a hurricane map that had obviously been doctored with a Sharpie.

It was funny, telegenic, easy to grasp. So, understandably, Sharpiegate got news coverage up the wazoo. The more ominous developments in this saga, however, got significantly less attention. They happened the previous Sunday, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sent a secret agencywide directive warning its scientists not to contradict the president, and then the subsequent Friday, when NOAA released an unsigned statement backing Trump's false forecast and disparaging its own scientists. It was reportedly sent after the commerce secretary threatened firings.

Sure, Trump's attacks on objective statistics, scientists or really any independent source of accountability are nothing new. On the contrary, such attacks have become ubiquitous. Anyone who dares to produce or even accurately report on politically inconvenient metrics is allegedly participating in a vast anti-Trump conspiracy or is somehow rooting for America to fail.

And, at this point, media corrections of Trump's false claims about stock performance, or air purity, or the strength of the manufacturing sector, can feel tedious, pedantic and exhausting. Trump's just being Trump, pundits scold. We should all move on to "real" concerns rather than these distractions from whatever other horrible (or, depending on your viewpoint, wonderful) things the administration is doing.

But these are real concerns. Trump's attempted manipulations of official metrics -- and the aspersions he casts upon metrics he cannot manipulate -- degrade our democracy, economy and public safety.

Distrust in official data is deadly to voters' ability to evaluate public policies, as well as the records of the officials crafting or overseeing those policies.

This numerical nihilism likewise wears on companies' and households' abilities to make informed and economically efficient decisions, something Trump's billionaire Cabinet should appreciate.

And as illustrated by the administration's insistence that even the weather report is fake, the erosion of trust in government data can also kill people.

The director of the National Weather Service gave a brave speech on Monday -- at an annual meteorological meeting in Alabama, of all places. He noted that shortly after Trump's initial Alabama hurricane tweet, the National Weather Service's Birmingham office noticed its "phones and social media" light up with questions about Dorian. Without actually knowing what had triggered these worried inquiries, it tweeted to assure the public that "Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian."

"They did that with one thing in mind: public safety," NWS Director Louis Uccellini said, defending the employees his superiors had attacked. "The Birmingham office did this to stop panic."

After all, just as there are costs to failing to alert people about dangerous weather, so, too, are there costs to encouraging people to freak out about dangerous weather that doesn't exist. For the National Weather Service, long-term credibility matters: If people come to believe the government hypes or even invents the risk of natural disaster, they might ignore those warnings next time there actually is significant risk of natural disaster.

This problem is not theoretical. It happened in Joplin, Missouri, in 2011, when 158 people died from a powerful tornado despite National Weather Service warnings. A subsequent NOAA report found that the perceived frequency of tornado warning sirens had caused people to become "desensitized or complacent" and "not take protective action" until it was too late.

Just as we don't want Americans to become "desensitized or complacent" about the risk of deadly weather, neither should we allow ourselves to become "desensitized or complacent" about the risk this president presents to one of our country's most precious assets: reliable, trustworthy, nonpartisan public data.

Catherine Rampell's email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

About
Catherine Rampell is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post. She frequently covers economics, public policy, politics and culture, with a special emphasis on data-driven journalism. She is also a political and economic commentator for CNN and an occasional special correspondent for PBS Newshour. Before joining The Post, she wrote about economics and theater for the New York Times. Rampell has received the Weidenbaum Center Award for Evidence-Based Journalism and is a Gerald Loeb Award finalist. She grew up in southern Florida and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton University.
Awards
  • Weidenbaum Center Award for Evidence-Based Journalism, 2010
  • Gerald Loeb Award, Finalist, 2011
  • Gerald Loeb Award, Finalist, 2012
  • Gerald Loeb Award, Finalist, 2018
  • Gerald Loeb Award, Finalist, 2019
Reviews
"Opinion editors encounter a regular problem in selecting syndicated material for their pages: several columnists writing about the same topic in the same week. Diversity of subject matter is important to readers, and I've found that when I need a different, interesting topic with a different voice, Catherine Rampell consistently delivers." -Glenn Cook, Las Vegas Review-Journal

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