Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

Bobo has put on his sociologist hat again.  In “The Rediscovery of Character” he gurgles that above his other achievements, James Q. Wilson reintegrated the vocabulary of character into discussions of everyday life.  Mr. Cohen considers “The Lessons of Paris-on-Thames,” and says the French Socialist presidential candidate François Hollande’s tax proposal would push more wealthy French people to leave the country.  Mr. Nocera, in “A Union Stands Up for Players,” says college athletes are more than just cogs in the N.C.A.A. machine.  Mr. Bruni looks at “Poorly Told Political Futures,” and says en route to Super Tuesday, the 2012 race has provided lessons and surprises aplenty.  Here’s Bobo:

The obituaries for James Q. Wilson, the eminent social scientist, generally emphasized his “broken windows” theory on how to reduce crime. That’s natural. This strategy, which contributed to the recent reduction in crime rates, was his most tangible legacy.

But broken windows was only a small piece of what Wilson contributed, and he did not consider it the center of his work. The best way to understand the core Wilson is by borrowing the title of one of his essays: “The Rediscovery of Character.”

When Wilson began looking at social policy, at the University of Redlands, the University of Chicago and Harvard, most people did not pay much attention to character. The Marxists looked at material forces. Darwinians at the time treated people as isolated products of competition. Policy makers of right and left thought about how to rearrange economic incentives. “It is as if it were a mark of sophistication for us to shun the language of morality in discussing the problems of mankind,” he once recalled.

Wilson worked within this tradition. But during the 1960s and ’70s, he noticed that the nation’s problems could not be understood by looking at incentives. Schools were expanding, but James Coleman found that the key to education success was the relationships at home and in the neighborhood. Income transfers to the poor increased, but poor neighborhoods did not improve; instead families disintegrated.

The economy boomed and factory jobs opened up, but crime rates skyrocketed. Every generation has an incentive to spend on itself, but none ran up huge deficits until the current one. Some sort of moral norms prevented them.

“At root,” Wilson wrote in 1985 in The Public Interest, “in almost every area of important concern, we are seeking to induce persons to act virtuously, whether as schoolchildren, applicants for public assistance, would-be lawbreakers or voters and public officials.”

When Wilson wrote about character and virtue, he didn’t mean anything high flown or theocratic. It was just the basics, befitting a man who grew up in the middle-class suburbs of Los Angeles in the 1940s: Behave in a balanced way. Think about the long-term consequences of your actions. Cooperate. Be decent.

He did not believe that virtue was inculcated by prayer in schools. It was habituated by practicing good manners, by being dependable, punctual and responsible day by day.

Wilson lived in an individualistic age, but he emphasized that character was formed in groups. As he wrote in “The Moral Sense,” his 1993 masterpiece, “Order exists because a system of beliefs and sentiments held by members of a society sets limits to what those members can do.”

Wilson set out to learn how groups created a good order, why that order sometimes frayed. He worked patiently and meticulously. The phrase “we don’t know” rings throughout his writing. He was quick to admit ignorance in the face of knotty social problems.

When Wilson started talking about character, he was surprised that many in the academy regarded him as an archconservative. Why should character talk be conservative? But he accepted the label and responded gracefully. Some conservatives in the academy respond to their isolation by becoming combative and extreme. Wilson’s rule was that conservatives should respond by being twice as productive and four times as nice.

In “The Moral Sense,” he brilliantly investigated the virtuous sentiments we are born with and how they are cultivated by habit. Wilson’s broken windows theory was promoted in an essay with George Kelling called “Character and Community.” Wilson and Kelling didn’t think of crime primarily as an individual choice. They saw it as something that emerged from the social psychology of a community. When neighborhoods feel disorganized and scary, crime increases.

Over the years, Wilson argued that American communities responded to the stresses of industrialization by fortifying self-control. Thanks to the temperance movement, for example, adult per-capita alcohol consumption fell from 7.1 gallons a year to 1.8 gallons a year between 1830 and 1850.

But America responded to the stresses of the information economy by reducing the communal buttresses to self-control, with unfortunate results. Occasionally, when there was sufficient evidence, Wilson recommended policies that might reverse this slide. In one 1998 Public Interest essay, he promoted ideas to strengthen the family: create publicly supported, privately operated group homes for teenage mothers; increase adoption; investigate ways to increase preschool programs; create a G.I. Bill for young mothers — if you take care of your kid now, the government will pay for training later; create a religious United Way fund to increase the role of religion in American society.

Wilson was not a philosopher. He was a social scientist. He just understood that people are moral judgers and moral actors, and he reintegrated the vocabulary of character into discussions of everyday life.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

Can beauty be stifling? Paris puts that proposition to the test, a city manicured to perfection that has confined its immigrant underclass to the invisible suburbs and burnished every surface of its seductive allure.

Certainly, a lot of young Parisians have voted with their feet, moving across the Channel to Paris-on-Thames, aka London, where they come not so much in search of jobs — although there have been more of them — as of the global swirl: that raucous mix of innovation and grunge missing in a too-perfect Paris.

A new lycée, a new radio station (French Radio London) and a new electoral constituency including Britain all testify to the exodus, as did the appearance here last week of the French Socialist candidate François Hollande, otherwise known as “Monsieur 75 percent”: more on that below.

Nobody knows exactly how many French people have moved — as European Union citizens they don’t need to register — but more than 300,000 now live in London, making it the sixth-largest French city. Most are under 40. They learn English and they learn that globalization is not merely the catalogue of woes so laboriously laid out by the French left over the past couple of decades.

They feel, of a drizzly afternoon in Shoreditch, the mysterious tug of energy over beauty and of edge over elegance.

Hollande came to make his pitch to this expat crowd before the French presidential election next month. He was snubbed by David Cameron, despite the fact the British prime minister was snubbed recently in Brussels by President Nicolas Sarkozy: European leaders, in self-congratulatory mood over a few weeks without an outright euro crisis, are now banding together to avoid any disruption — a Hollande victory, for example — to Mario Draghi’s silky euro salvage operation.

Otherwise, however, Hollande was well received. There’s a thirst in Europe for growth, for something other than Franco-German austerity, and for a comeuppance for all those bankers seen as the villains of an age of inequality. Hollande has made speculative finance his prime target. “I wanted to come here to London to say that finance must be in the service of the economy to create wealth and not to enrich itself on the real economy,” he said.

Nobody sensible would argue with finance serving the economy rather than a few financiers. But Hollande’s new proposal to impose a 75 percent marginal tax on incomes above €1 million is populist politics at its worst. He declared on Jan. 28 that imposing hypertaxes on the very rich backfires. “A punitive tax on a tiny fraction of taxpayers would not produce much revenue,” he said.

Hollande was right in January and wrong now. His flip-flop, although it seems to have given him a slight boost in the polls, raises again the temperament question. Hollande is a highly intelligent and cultured man, but is he a waverer?

He managed to spend years not reforming the French Socialist Party at a time when the rest of the European left was busy ditching class struggle to adjust to the demands of modernity and globalization.

A 75 percent tax, added to other taxes and social charges, would mean taxing the rich at over 100 percent. A lot of the wealthiest French people have already moved. Those that have not would.

The power of voting with your feet is evident in London, a city that has found strength in flux while Paris has gilded its stasis. Hollande needs to personify a new French left that will not punish creators of wealth even as it calls for growth: His proposal does the opposite.

The French election remains too close to call. Sarkozy faces some of the same problems as Barack Obama. There are the surface ones: high unemployment, faltering growth, budget deficits. And then there is the core issue: Neither has found a way to connect with the nation in a manner that lifts the mood or creates a conviction of better days to come.

That’s a tougher task in France, whose reflex mode is grumpiness, than in the United States, where can-do optimism is the baseline. Still, the French like the Americans have kept their distance from their president. In France, with Sarkozy, it’s a question of perceived vulgarity. In the United States, it’s a question of perceived aloofness. Somewhere beneath those perceptions lie deeper prejudices. In America, all the nonsense about Obama being a Muslim or a European Socialist reflects some of his opponents’ repressed repugnance at the fact he’s African-American. In France, there’s a view of Sarkozy as the parvenu.

So, in theory, Hollande should be a shoo-in. He wants to be seen as “Monsieur Normal.” I don’t think being “Monsieur 75 percent” helps. It puts him out on a limb. He wants to come across as a man of the people in touch with “la France profonde,” the deep France repelled by Sarkozy’s “bling-bling” lifestyle.

But France has changed, as the big migration across the Channel suggests. And the “Merkozy” euro salvage operation has kept Europe from disintegrating before the generation of idealistic new Europeans living in Paris-on-Thames takes the reins. Score one for messy improvisation over beautiful order.

Mr. Nocera is up next:

“I hate bullies,” said DeMaurice Smith.

Smith, a former white-collar criminal defense lawyer with the high-powered law firm Patton Boggs, has been the executive director of the National Football League Players Association since 2009. That is to say, he runs the union that represents professional football players. Last year, he wrestled with the bullies running the N.F.L., who locked out the players when they couldn’t reach a labor agreement. Now he is setting his sights on an even bigger bully: the N.C.A.A.

It’s about time. Over the past few months, as I have been looking into the practices of the N.C.A.A., I have been struck by the fact that the players, exploited by everyone else in the system, have no one to advocate for them. The N.C.A.A. likes to say it exists to “protect student-athletes,” but it’s a laughable claim. The N.C.A.A. exists to rationalize the tawdry fact that the labor force of a $6 billion business — the estimated revenue of college football and men’s basketball — receives no compensation. (That’s what amateurism in big-time college sports really is: unpaid labor.) Coaches, athletic directors, conference presidents, the N.C.A.A. itself — they all take advantage of the teenagers who are making them rich, knowing their young charges have no recourse.

Worst of all are university presidents. So quick to espouse the rights of the student body — rights of privacy, of free association, and of due process should they get in trouble — they allow the N.C.A.A. to strip college athletes of every one of these rights. They look the other way as athletes receive a substandard education, or no education at all. An athlete can be defamed by the N.C.A.A., even have his career destroyed for no good reason, and the school, fearing retaliation, will never step forward to defend him publicly. It is shameful.

I had traveled to Washington to see Smith because I had heard through the grapevine that he, too, had begun to poke around the N.C.A.A. — and had been shocked by what he had discovered. The week before we met, Smith had been in Indianapolis for the N.F.L.’s annual “combine,” where it works out college players who are likely to be drafted. It struck him: these players were “our future members.” And whether they made it to the pros or not, they deserved better treatment in college. That’s why unions exist: to fight for better treatment for the work force.

“All of these practices,” Smith said, “whether it is compensation, due process, privacy, and the significant racial aspect, given that so many of these athletes come from disadvantaged backgrounds — they all come under the heading of fairness.” He continued: “Part of the problem is that everyone in the system starts by thinking of the players as athletes first. That is the wrong starting point. An athlete is a person first. When you start there, it changes the way you think about everything.”

Of course, it isn’t just the adults who think of the players primarily as athletes. The same is true of the athletes themselves. That is why it has been so difficult for them to stand up for themselves. They have been playing their sports since they were small children, practicing for hours every day. They have come to define themselves by their athletic proficiency. They often arrive at college with stars in their eyes. But they are also fearful of anything — a coach’s disapproval, an N.C.A.A. investigation — that might derail their dream.

Even after they have been abused by the system, they often remain silent. Not long ago, the producers of HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” reached out to Marc Bailey, who runs an organization called Reform the N.C.A.A., to see if he could help them find college players who had been victimized either by their school or the N.C.A.A. Bailey contacted three athletes he had recently helped: none were willing to speak out. “My high school coach used to say, ‘Self-interest makes cowards of us all,’ ” Bailey wrote to me in an e-mail. “Now I know he is right.”

Change will not come easily. Marvin Miller reminded me recently that it took nine years for the baseball players’ union, which he headed, to achieve free agency. Just like college players today, baseball players were fearful of what would happen if they stood up for their rights.

It is unclear how Smith will approach this crusade. He knows that the N.C.A.A. will fight to the death to keep the players in their current shackled state. And given the turnover in the college ranks, he conceded that it is virtually impossible to unionize the players using the tried-and-true techniques of union organizing. The one thing he is sure of is that change will come when college athletes start to see themselves as people first, with rights like everyone else.

That’s where he plans to start.

Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

With his time served on the trail in 2008 and the money he had going into 2012 and his momentum coming out of Florida, Mitt Romney was supposed to be turning much of his attention to the fall by now, not looking over his shoulder and sweating Ohio.

But this presidential race has been all about upended expectations. At the mile marker of Super Tuesday, it’s worth pausing to look at how frequently we’ve erred and how much we’ve learned.

By “we” I mean not only the news media but also most political analysts. For starters most of us grossly miscalculated the ardor, the stubbornness, the spleens of a great many conservative voters, who thrilled to Newt Gingrich despite his leaden baggage, swooned for Rick Santorum in all his frigid sanctimony and would not be wooed by Romney, no matter how many dozens of roses he promised.

This was a likelihood that had been staring us in the face, an easy extrapolation from the far right’s behavior during the debt-ceiling showdown last summer. Still we missed it, so certain that a determination to defeat President Obama would cause Republicans to coalesce before this point.

As fortunetellers we stink, and we stink with possible consequences. Because we didn’t see Santorum coming, we homed in on his extremism late, so that he was able for a long while to play offense instead of defense and choose his talking points. Did that help him get this far?

We overestimated the sway of money, factoring it into our glowing predictions for Rick Perry, who burst out of the gate with considerable campaign funds and the hope of much more. His lead was fleeting, his collapse spectacular.

Romney’s financial edge hasn’t yet slashed rivals quite as brutally as once envisioned. Santorum plodded through the opening phase of the contest on a shoestring and caught fire before Foster Friess opened his checkbook wide. Even now he’s not on a financial par with Romney; nor are Gingrich and Paul. They linger nonetheless.

To the extent that Santorum and Gingrich have been kept afloat by a crucial baseline of financing, they owe thanks to the dawn of super PACs, a development that was thought to be dangerous to Obama but might, in a roundabout way, wind up helping him. The longer the Republican battle grinds on, the bloodier its combatants become. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that the percentage of voters who view Romney unfavorably now trumps those who view him favorably by 11 points. Bob Dole, in contrast, had a mere four-point negative spread at this point in 1996. He fared well.

As for momentum’s role in this election cycle, the fabled “big mo” is a seeming no go. Gingrich supposedly had it coming out of South Carolina, long billed as the best bellwether of all the early states, but it was wrested by Santorum after Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota. It’s now Romney’s yet again.

Meantime, the culture wars have resumed — usually something Republicans relish.

But the surreal focus this time is on birth control as opposed to abortion, and conservatives keep overplaying their hands. Rush Limbaugh fished tired epithets from a misogynistic toilet; advertisers proceeded to flush him. (On the environmental front, Lou Dobbs attacked “The Lorax” as a tree-smooching Commie, but the movie is cleaning up at the box office.)

Democrats sense an advantage, and are seizing it with the kind of gusto more commonly associated with Republicans. So aloof and cerebral so much of the time, Obama got warm and fuzzy with Sandra Fluke, calling her up to say her parents should be proud. Nicely done.

Fluke could be the Joe the Plumber of 2012, drafted by political circumstance into a pitched debate about the rightful role of government and given a symbolic currency she couldn’t have foreseen. In the “American Idol” era, the people with the most compelling claim on our attention are those plucked from obscurity.

“American Idol” brings us to Fox, whose anchors during the campaign have also strayed off script. Possibly because they needn’t worry about being tagged with liberal bias, probably because tense theater equals good television, they have subjected Republican candidates to some of their toughest questioning.

Bret Baier cornered Romney on his inconstancy. Chris Wallace asked Michele Bachmann: “Are you a flake?

On Sunday morning he grilled Santorum about having given a much lower percentage of his income to charity than Obama had. He also confronted him with federal statistics that 99 percent of sexually active American women between the ages 15 and 44 have used artificial birth control.

“All of those women have done something wrong?” he wondered aloud.

I got the sense that he was placing his chips on Romney. And I’ll say that’s right, though I’m aware in doing so of all the wrong turns to date.

 

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