In this ground-breaking analysis, Terry Moe treats Hurricane Katrina as a natural experiment that offers a rare opportunity to learn about the role of power in the politics of institutional reform. When Katrina hit, it physically destroyed New Orleans’ school buildings, but it also destroyed the vested-interest power that had long protected the city’s abysmal education system from major reform. With the constraints of power lifted, decision makers who had been incremental problem-solvers turned into revolutionaries, creating the most innovative school system in the entire country.
The story of New Orleans’ path from failure to revolution is fascinating. But more importantly, it reveals the true role of power, whose full effects typically cannot be observed—because power has a “second face” that is hidden and unobservable. Making use of Katrina’s analytic leverage, Moe pulls back the curtain to show that this “second face” has profound consequences that, under normal conditions, stifle and undermine society’s efforts to fix failing institutions.