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Writing

I’ve written for The Atlantic, Miami Herald, Sociological Insight, Jacobin, and a number of other outlets. My work has focused on:

Climate Change, International Development and Sustainability

Workers’ Paradise. Harper’s. 2015.

The Most Dangerous Place To Be An Environmentalist. Generation Progress. 2015.

Honduras’ Five-Century War. Jacobin. 2015.

With Its Own Satellite, Bolivia Hopes to Put Rural Areas on the Grid. Inter Press Service, with Gustav Cappaert. 2014.

What Happens When The Water Runs Out? Generation Progress. 2014.

Brazil Begins To Evict Settlers From Awá Land; Will It Be Enough? IPCCA. 2014.

Climate Change Could Increase Poverty In Peru; Indigenous Peoples Respond. IPCCA. 2013.

REDD+ Agreement In Warsaw Threatens Indigenous Livelihoods. IPCCA. 2013.

Warsaw Walkout Highlights The Absence Of Urgent Climate Action. IPCCA. 2013.

Treaty Hints At End Of Reckless International Weapons Sales. Generation Progress. 2013.

Revolutionary Tourism: Cuba’s Deal with the Devil. American Way of Life. 2010.

 

Race, Class, and Inequality in American Cities

Does Michigan’s Emergency-Manager Law Disenfranchise Black Citizens? The Atlantic. 2013.

Talk about Crisis: Everyday Life in Detroit. Sociological Insight. 2013.

Number Crunch: The Arithmetic of Desperation in Detroit. Z Communications. 2013.

What ‘Ruin Porn’ Does and Doesn’t Tell Us. TheFightBack. 2012.

Making Cents: Rep Payee Clients Tackle Financial Literacy. Bread for the City. 2012.

‘East of the River’ or ‘River East’? Washington City Paper. 2010.

Students: Post-Layoff McKinley High School ‘Dreary.’ Washington City Paper. 2009.

 

Latin American Political Economy

Anxiety in Havana as US Embassy Opens. Generation Progress. 2015.

America’s Cuba: US Hostility Was Never Really About The Cold War. CounterPunch. 2014.

Why It’s So Hard For Central Americans To Get Asylum In The US. Alternet. 2014.

The road to Machu Picchu, traveled on the backs of its builders. Seattle Globalist, with Gustav Cappaert. 2014.

How Peru Is Kicking Its Coke Habit. Generation Progress. 2014.

Rainbow Tide Rising: How Latin America Became A Gay Rights Haven. Alternet. 2014.

Cuba to Drop Exit Visa Requirements. CounterPunch. 2012.

Cuban Colada Blogger. Miami Herald. 2011.

The Cuban Five and ‘El Sexto.’ Generation Progress. 2010.

 

The American Economy: Education, Labor, Poverty and Growth

Should College Athletes Be Paid? Generation Progress. 2013.

Give Free Money To Everybody. Generation Progress. 2013.

Is There Really A Shortage Of Science Majors? Generation Progress. 2013.

Nicholas Kristof Is Wrong About Poverty. Alternet. 2013.

American University Adjuncts Vote To Unionize. Washington City Paper. 2012.

The Union Forever At American University? Washington City Paper. 2012.

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Recent


Need Cash Fast? Ask Reddit

My friend Gustav and I laid out the hottest new place to get a payday-style loan, sometimes in just minutes: Reddit. In The Atlantic, we explain how an ad-hoc community of online lenders Paypal money to strangers based on their forum posts, and most of them get repaid.

When asked if they’d be able to cover a $400 emergency expense, Neal Gabler’s recent Atlantic cover story noted, nearly half of all respondents to a 2014 Federal Reserve study said that they wouldn’t have enough cash on hand.

So how would they scrape the money together? Most told the Fed they would try for a bank loan, use a credit card, or make a potentially embarrassing request to family and friends. Two percent of respondents said they would take out a payday loan.

To avoid this suite of unattractive choices, some borrowers are asking strangers for money on Reddit instead. Since 2011, a section of the site, r/borrow (and its predecessor, r/loans), has matched users looking for quick credit with lenders willing to put up cash. Most loans on r/borrow charge very high interest rates—usually between 10 and 25 percent, to be paid back over weeks or months. Per data collected by one r/borrow user, the subreddit facilitated 3,473 loans totaling over $780,000 in 2015. According to a moderator of the subreddit, r/borrow users, like Redditors at large, skew young, white, and male. Loans tend to range from $100 to a few thousand dollars, and cover the gamut of emergency financial needs, including car repairs, debt consolidation, medical bills, or unexpected travel costs.

Relatively speaking, these aren’t huge numbers—the consumer-credit market handles trillions of dollars each year—but they do highlight the ways in which traditional lending options can fail to give some people what they need. “It’s not surprising that borrowers are looking for alternative ways of getting access to credit,” says Paul Leonard, the former director of the California office of the Center for Responsible Lending.

When Americans need money, they often turn first to banks for a loan, but their options there are only as good as their credit. If their credit score—a figure that can be calculated incorrectly and yet is often taken as the sole indicator of a prospective borrower’s reliability—is low, they often turn to loans with much higher interest rates. Take Justin O’Dell, a cable technician living in Dexter, Michigan. He says his mother took out several credit cards in his name while he was in college and racked up about $40,000 in debt. “My choices were to press charges for credit fraud or eat the debt,” he said. “I ate the debt.” No longer able to get student loans, O’Dell was forced to drop out of college.

When O’Dell later needed some cash to pay his cellphone bill after his wife lost her job, he briefly considered a payday loan—an extremely high-interest alternative that is known to catch consumers in cycles of debt and is mostly unregulated in 32 states. (Payday loans are not equal-opportunity debt traps, either: “There is some evidence that lenders have concentrated themselves in communities of color,” said Joe Valenti, the director of consumer finance for the Center for American Progress.) But after deciding against that option, and against the embarrassment of asking his father, O’Dell ultimately opted for the comfortable distance of a Reddit loan. “You don’t have to walk back to dad with your tail between your legs and ask for help,” he said. Now, he turns to Reddit when surprise expenses arise.

The full story here.

Workers’ Paradise

In Harper’s, I wrote about how Cuba—perhaps more than any other country on the planet—stands at the enviable intersection of high human development and low ecological footprint:

In Cuba today, population growth is stable, malnutrition is low, higher education is free, and most tropical diseases have been eradicated. Cubans can expect to live seventy-nine years, currently slightly outliving Americans. No other country in the world has achieved such longevity while at the same time polluting so little. The average Cuban has a 4.7-acre ecological footprint, the total amount of land area needed to grow the food they eat, produce the goods they use, and absorb the carbon they emit. For humans to avoid depleting the earth’s ecological resources, we would all have to live on about 4 acres each, according to the environmental nonprofit Global Footprint Network. As of 2011, Costa Ricans each used 5.4 acres, Norwegians almost 12, Americans nearly 17.

Check out the link above to read about rare snails on top of mountains and lush reefs at the island’s remote edge. It was one of the most stimulating stories I’ve ever written, but it was motivated by some pretty grim lines of inquiry. One of my guiding questions was along the lines of: what does Cuba suggest about the likelihood that human societies will choose to live within our planet’s ecological budget when overshooting it is so easy? I found few Cubans who were satisfied with their current level of consumption, and understandably so. Cubans make many sacrifices that us Americans would hardly accept, from forgoing air travel to creatively sourcing toilet paper.

Even some right-wing thinkers have been able to grasp some of the essence of the dilemma. “No free society would do to itself what the [climate justice] agenda requires … The first step to doing that is to remove these nagging freedoms that keep getting in the way,” says one climate denier quoted in Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. I think a more optimistic counterargument can be constructed, but Cuba sure is fodder for pessimism.

One Story Of Immigration Through Mexico

Published at Generation Progress.

The United States is outsourcing its immigration enforcement to Mexico, according to a New York Times op-ed by author Sonia Nazario published earlier this month. The US has given Mexico tens of millions of dollars for immigration enforcement, and the number of Central Americans Mexico detains is exploding. While the number of Central Americans the US detains is expected to drop by half this year, Mexico’s apprehensions will nearly double, up from 92,889 last year.

Mexico sent hundreds of immigration agents to its southernmost states in July 2014. Central American migrants caught by Mexican police are sent to squalid detention centers and then typically deported back to their countries of origin, where many of them face violence and persecution. But being caught is only one of many risks: migrants passing through Mexico are often targeted for robbery, rape, and kidnapping.

In June of last year, traveling as a backpacker from Honduras to my home in Michigan, I witnessed one small stretch of this arduous journey. Even before the Mexican government had intensified its crackdown, it was clear that the trip through Mexico was full of dangers.

In early June I crossed from Guatemala into Mexico over the muddy Usumacinta River on a small motorized canoe piled high with luggage. With half a dozen or so other tourists, I piled into a full-sized van with about ten others who I assumed were locals. We were headed toward Palenque, a mid-sized Mexican town and home to the remains of a large Mayan city.

Shortly into the drive, our van was stopped at a police checkpoint, and after a short conversation between police officers and passengers all the men—except for us European and North American tourists—were taken into the police station for questioning. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw one of the men slip cash into his Honduran passport as he entered the police station.

The men all piled back into the car shortly after. The next police checkpoint came after another half hour or so of driving. As we approached, the van driver put up his hand and gave a lecture through the rearview mirror about how, this time, he was going to do all the talking.

We got through without any trouble, but when were coming up to what turned out to be not a police but an army checkpoint, he stopped the car before coming around the bend, and told the men to get out and walk. They passed through a line of trees at the roadside and into a nearby farm field. The van passed through the military checkpoint and picked the men up at a gas station on the other side. One of the younger among them sat down next to me in the vehicle.

I figured I would be doing the migrants a favor by not asking questions, but after they manipulated the authorities so openly, I figured they weren’t trying to keep secrets. I turned to the man next to me and asked: “How did it go?”

Todo tranquilo,” he said. “We’re just hoping we keep having good luck for the entire trip.”

I asked him where he was headed. He told me his father lived in Miami, and he was hoping to meet up with him there and find work. He and his companions were from the Bajo Aguan region of Honduras, an area rife with drug trafficking and political violence (in many cases perpetrated by the US-backed 15th Battalion of the Honduran army). The van driver was helping this group reach Palenque, where they would meet up with another guide. They expected to cross the US border on foot within a week—a highly optimistic estimate, based on the New York Times report. He told me he was 25—nearly the same age as me—and that he hoped to practice his English once he arrived to the States. At some point I must have gotten too inquisitive, because after awhile he grew silent.

We came up to another police checkpoint, and I got nervous. All of the sudden I realized the consequences of my curiosity. I was now responsible for keeping this group’s secret, should police officers for some reason decide to question me. What would you do: lie to a police officer in a foreign country, in your second language? Or betray a group of acquaintances on a long hard road in search of a better life?

My anxiety only mounted when one of the officers climbed into our van, sat down, and began speaking to the driver as he pulled away. “Who are you taking them to?” the officer asked.

“To Tomas,” the driver responded.

“Who is Tomas?”

“To be honest, I don’t know.”

One of the Honduran passengers passed a wad of cash to this officer, and he accompanied to us the rest of the way to Palenque. I got out of the van and waved goodbye to the Hondurans in the van as they pulled away.

They had navigated four anti-migrant checkpoints and made two bribes in order to cover barely 100 miles and reach a city in the deep south of Mexico, still almost 2,000 miles from the United States. And many Central Americans traveling through Mexico face far greater challenges. According to Nazario’s reporting for the New York Times, Mexican authorities have been cracking down on travel on “The Beast,” the series of freight trains whose roofs migrants ride on in order to evade authorities. Low-hanging structures have been placed in the train’s route in order to knock riders off the top, and police apparently use their Tasers to remove people from moving train cars. Central Americans kidnapped in Mexico have reportedly been enslaved in marijuana fields, forced into prostitution, or killed in order to extract their internal organs and sell them.

One Honduran woman Nazario spoke to spent $3,000 on bribes and transportation just to make it to a migrant shelter 300 miles into Mexico. She fled her Honduran hometown of San Pedro Sula after gang members killed her 14-year-old son for refusing to serve as a lookout. This is her second attempt at the journey: Mexican authorities have already deported her once back to San Pedro Sula. She left again immediately. According to social scientist Elizabeth Kennedy, quoted in the New York Times, at least 90 migrants deported from the United States or Mexico have been killed after returning to their home countries in under two years.

A few days after my van ride to Palenque, I returned to the United States, taking comfortable buses full of tourists through Mexico, and then a plane from Mexico City to San Antonio. It occurred to me that the Honduran migrants were attempting to cover almost exactly the same ground, under obviously very different circumstances. I wonder if they made it.