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

PARIS -- If (BEG ITAL)your(END ITAL) country can't figure this out, what hope is there for mine?

I kept wondering this as I met here with Notre Affaire à Tous, one of four organizations suing the French government for failing to keep its Paris climate accord commitments.

In France, unlike in the United States, politicians actually want to lead on this existential crisis. Their constituents know climate change is real, and they are genuinely alarmed by it: 83% think climate change is a "major threat" to their country, according to Pew Research Center. In the United States, the share is just 59%.

Here, climate marches are frequent and well attended. Here, the Green Party recently became the country's third- largest contingent in the European Parliament. Here, needless to say, the Paris climate accord was negotiated.

And yet.

When the French government recently attempted to expand its carbon tax -- the tool economists consider most effective at curbing use of carbon-intensive technologies and jump-starting green innovation -- it failed spectacularly.

Last fall, shortly before a fuel-tax increase was set to take effect, protests and riots erupted. Demonstrators donned the reflective vests all French motorists must keep in their cars, earning them the name gilets jaunes, or yellow vests. Yellow vests viewed raising the fuel tax as callous, regressive, elitist.

"Macron is concerned with the end of the world," one slogan puts it, referring to French President Emmanuel Macron. "We are concerned with the end of the month."

Macron eventually capitulated, not only suspending the tax but also offering other concessions, such as more generous pensions.

And so the country's more ambitious climate plans got put on the back burner. Meanwhile, many of its other climate actions have proved relatively inconsequential.

The government has banned drilling and fracking in French territories by 2040, for instance. Sounds impressive, until you realize 99 percent of the country's hydrocarbons are already imported.

The government has proposed a plan to make the country carbon-neutral by 2050. But that, too, fudges how "carbon neutrality" is calculated and puts off some of the most politically unpopular measures.

Hence that climate lawsuit, dubbed l'affaire du siècle -- the case of the century.

Announced in December, the suit accuses the government of violating the climate accord, as well as other domestic and international laws requiring more action.

"In France, we are famous for this, to talk and have many discussions and to not advance in one way or another," said Paul Mougeolle, a project coordinator and jurist at Notre Affaire à Tous. "Of course it's difficult, and we don't have enough time, but that's why we're trying to sue the state and the companies in order to force them to make change more rapidly."

But to give you a sense of how politically toxic those more ambitious climate actions are, note that even Notre Affaire à Tous has not endorsed a carbon tax.

Mougeolle says the timing of the legal action, just days after Macron caved on the fuel tax, was coincidental; Mougeolle's organization, too, has reservations about the distributional impact of such a tax, at least as currently designed.

Given all this, it's easy to become demoralized about whether the United States, with a much larger carbon footprint and a much less climate-concerned populace, can make progress. But the better response is to study where France went wrong and adapt.

For example, there's the flawed design of France's carbon tax.

The government chose to use most of the tax revenue to pay down the budget deficit. Instead, it should have rebated the money to the public, most generously to those least able to either absorb the tax (the poor) or reduce their carbon emissions (those in suburbs and rural areas).

Additionally, there's the broader policy context and political framing to consider.

Macron, recall, has backed tax cuts for the rich and safety-net cuts. In a country as égalité-obsessed as France, this combination of policy changes was almost inevitably going to play into an angry narrative that the former investment-banker president disdains the common man.

Which is presumably one reason the yellow vests have persisted, long after the government tabled the fuel tax. The movement was never just about carbon taxes; it's more a primal scream, with a nebulous agenda based on populism, nationalist nostalgia and frustration with income stagnation.

There's no way around it: Some of what's necessary to curb climate change will cause pain, especially in the near term. But there are ways to reduce that pain, economically and politically -- especially relative to the economic and political pain sure to come from doing nothing.

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

An iconic American industry is struggling.

This sector has long been battered by forces beyond its control: globalization, automation, "disruptive" new competitors, changing tastes. Bankruptcies mount, and workplaces shutter around the country. Big, empty buildings, once bustling with young people, have been left to rot.

To add insult to injury, the industry is poised to get slaughtered by President Trump's escalating trade wars. But notwithstanding the U.S. trade representative's (USTR) public hearings on the subject that began Monday, hardly anyone seems to care.

The industry I'm referring to? Why, retail, of course.

Retail is larger than any of the sectors Trump usually dotes on, the ones he bestows with bailouts and subsidies and affectionate tweets. "Retail salesperson" is the single biggest occupation in the country. Total industry employment eclipses that of manufacturing by some 3 million jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In fact, more people work in department stores (BEG ITAL)alone(END ITAL) than in the entire coal mining industry -- by a factor of 20.

Lately, retail has been suffering. From January through mid-June, U.S. companies announced plans to close some 7,000 brick-and-mortar stores, more closures than in all of 2018, according to Coresight Research. This despite the fact that the economy has posted strong growth and consumers have more money in their pockets thanks to the recent tax cuts.

Many dark or soon-to-darken storefronts are household names, such as Payless ShoeSource, Gap, J.C. Penney, Family Dollar. They have struggled to compete as customers spend more of their money online (and on other purchases, such as restaurant meals).

Malls were also vastly overbuilt, growing more than twice as fast as the U.S. population from 1970 to 2015. So even without Amazon and other e-commerce, a correction was probably coming eventually, if not necessarily the retail-pocalypse we see today. (Amazon's founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)

There are lots of parallels with Trump's pet industries. Retail, for instance, is dominated by demographics at the heart of Trump's political base: financially insecure non-college-educated whites displaced by technological change.

Yet, for some reason, the decline of retail -- and the 160,000 industry jobs eliminated since January 2017 -- hasn't inspired nearly the same level of sympathy as have similar challenges in other industries.

Perhaps that's because retail isn't as geographically concentrated as manufacturing. Bombed-out malls dot the country, punching holes in local employment numbers. But there's no Rust Belt-like locus for presidential candidates to pander to.

Or maybe it's that retail isn't as "manly" as manufacturing, in the literal sense: About half of retail payroll employees are women, compared with just more than a quarter of manufacturing workers.

Whatever the cause, that lack of sympathy is going to be a problem. Because just as these companies are enduring painful structural change, Trump is threatening to jack up their costs.

When Trump began his tariff hikes in early 2018, he mostly spared consumer goods, with some notable exceptions. His tariffs on steel, aluminum and $250 billion of Chinese imports primarily targeted inputs. Then last month, he announced plans to levy new duties of 25% on the remaining $300 billion or so of Chinese products. What's left is largely consumer goods: cellphones, clothing, toys, shoes and so on.

Retail companies, understandably, are freaking out. They source much of their inventory from China and can't reroute their supply chains easily, cheaply or quickly.

Last week, 661 firms -- including major players such as Costco, Target and Hallmark -- signed a letter pleading with the administration not to use tariffs as a cudgel in its efforts to address China's trade abuses. The USTR has also received more than 1,600 written comments thus far, overwhelmingly negative.

These, like the USTR public hearings, echo what big retailers had already been warning investors and customers: Sweeping tariffs will stress already-thin profit margins and lead to layoffs. They will also raise prices for U.S. households by hundreds or thousands of dollars, wiping out the value of Trump's tax cuts.

Trump's trade wars have caused plenty of pain for U.S. companies already, but he's cushioned the blow to at least some of them through taxpayer-funded bailouts. No such rescue seems in the offing for retail -- neither for the businesses and workers themselves, nor the customers who will have to absorb price increases, as they have in earlier rounds of tariffs.

Even if Trump were inclined to execute such a bailout, designing it would present a challenge. How, after all, would you bail out nearly every taxpayer in the country?

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

Breaking: A Republican accidentally told the truth about tax cuts.

Almost. At least if you count Rep. Kevin Brady's (Tex.) recent equivocation about whether the GOP tax overhaul will really pay for itself.

Way back in the first year of President Trump's administration, Republicans made a bunch of promises about their tax law, nearly all of which they've broken at this point.

They promised that the tax cuts would help the middle class more than the rich (false). At one point, they even promised that the rich wouldn't benefit (BEG ITAL)at all(END ITAL) (hilariously false). And they promised the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, as it was known, would permanently turbocharge economic and wage growth, through turbocharged capital investment (so far, also apparently false).

Finally, there was the promise that, thanks to all that turbocharging, the tax overhaul wouldn't cost Uncle Sam a dime. Some, including Brady, even sometimes claimed the law would (BEG ITAL)increase(END ITAL) tax revenue and reduce deficits.

Never mind that every independent forecaster -- including the Penn-Wharton Budget Model, Tax Policy Center, Tax Foundation and Wall Street economic analysts -- said no, the law would definitely increase deficits. Congress' own neutral internal scorekeeper, the Congressional Budget Office, estimated that even after accounting for macroeconomic effects, the tax overhaul would add $1.9 trillion in red ink.

Republicans still swore up and down that their tax plan would be fully paid for.

"If I thought that this would exacerbate the deficit, I would not support it," declared the supposed budget hawk Jeb Hensarling, then a Republican congressman from Texas, as the bill was being jammed through in late 2017.

"We think we can pay for the entire tax cut through growth over the cycle," echoed Gary Cohn, then Trump's National Economic Council director.

"The tax cut has paid for itself already barely through the first calendar year," Cohn's successor, Larry Kudlow, incorrectly claimed the following year.

Here we are, about a year and a half post-TCJA, and deficits are ballooning. In fact, the deficit is up nearly 40 percent so far in fiscal 2019 relative to the same period a year earlier.

This is striking precisely (BEG ITAL)because(END ITAL) the economy is still expanding, as it has for the past decade. For most of the postwar era, when the economy has grown, deficits have shrunk or even converted into surpluses. That's because a growing economy usually brings in higher tax revenue and a reduced need for safety-net programs such as food stamps and unemployment benefits. Except in times of war, it's highly unusual for a growing economy to be met with a growing deficit.

At the Peter G. Peterson Foundation's annual Fiscal Summit this week, my colleague Heather Long asked Brady about this departure from trend.

"What percent [of the tax cuts] do you think is paid for?" she asked.

Rather than repeating his one-time promise of deficit neutrality, he said that it was "hard to know" how much of the cost of the tax cut would ever be recouped.

"There's going to be a hundred estimates," he said when asked specifically about the CBO's dismal forecasts. He did not acknowledge, of course, that however many independent estimates have been published thus far, not one of them supports the promises his party had made when it passed this law.

He also assured the audience: "I don't think anything could have been worse for the deficit than to stick with the old economy and stick with the tax code that was so outdated."

Which is funny, because we know there's at least one tax system "worse for the deficit" than the tax system we had before: the one Brady helped usher into place.

None of this should be surprising.

We knew Republicans were lying about whether tax cuts would pay for themselves in 2017. Just as they lied about whether they paid for themselves under President Ronald Reagan during the 1980s, or under President George W. Bush during the 2000s, or in Kansas just a few years ago.

Faced with inconvenient budget estimates from independent analysts, Republicans recycle the same playbook: attack the referees, credulously cite the inflated forecasts of their own hacks-for-hire, then act surprised when reality comes up short. Even the same always-wrong "experts" recur. One, Arthur Laffer, has proved so useful over the past 40 years of budgetary baiting-and-switching that Trump just awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Maybe Brady realizes he kinda-sorta spoke out of turn. But maybe he also knows that his party has yet to face consequences for any of its fiscal failures.

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: Former vice president Joe Biden is the latest 2020 contender to claim Trump's tax cut skipped the middle class.(Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

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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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