Where's the Silver Bullet?
By Amy Willis
In this week’s episode, EconTalk host Russ Roberts welcomed back Stanford University political scientist Terry Moe to talk about his new book, The Politics of Institutional Reform. Much of the conversation focuses on the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina on the New Orleans school system, but along the way, Moe’s general concept of the Second Face of Power emerges. What did you take from this episode? How might we apply Moe’s work on vested interests and political institutions in areas beyond K12 education?
The conversation begins as Moe point out that in American K12 education today, there really is not much reform despite lots of activity. Moe quips that “reform” has been happening since the release of A Nation at Risk in 1983, but that reformers simply have not been able to overcome entrenched resistance. “Vested interests are universal,” Moe says. Roberts bemoans the lack of dynamism in education as compared to the rest of the economy. So what gives?
1- The vested interests Moe counts as most to blame in stifling educational reform are teachers’ unions and school boards. Why does joining a union to protect your job necessarily conflict with helping students, according to Moe? Why is the governance of schools by school boards not nearly as “democratic” as many seem to think? To what extent do you think Moe is justified in his blame laying?
2- What is the “Second Face to Power” Moe describes? What are its effects, and why is its principle consequence nothing?
3- Moe describes the aftermath of Katrina as an incredible natural experiment in political science. According to Moe, the hurricane destroyed the power of the New Orleans school board because it destroyed the schools.”What happened was a revolution.” How can you explain what happened, employing Moe’s concept of the Second Face of Power in your explanation? Why should the charter schools (also public schools) be any different than the ones they replaced? Weren’t the philanthropists and charter operators behind them their own vested interests?
4- Moe recounts the amazing result achieved by the post-Katrina schools. Why does Moe believe they were able to achieve such success? Always the devil’s advocate, Roberts posits alternative explanations for success. How doe Moe respond? Which explanations do you find the most plausible, and why?
5- What we learn from this episode for areas beyond education? What are some other areas where there is potential for change, but we just can’t see it as they are shadowed by the Second Face of Power?) What source(s) for optimism can you bring to bear to this conversation?