Good Reads: From Putin's economic woes, to billionaire trusts, to gender equality

This week's round-up of Good Reads includes President Putin's energy challenges, the man at the center of the NSA eavesdropping controversy, a narrative of a Taliban sneak attack, 'Jackie O. trusts' for wealthy estates, and a gender experiment at Harvard Business School.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
President Vladimir Putin addresses the media after a G20 summit meeting.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently appeared to have the upper hand in his dealings with the Obama administration, advancing a diplomatic plan to prevent a threatened US attack on Syria and providing refuge to National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

But Brian Bremner in Bloomberg Businessweek argues that “beneath Putin’s swagger lies weaknesses at the core of the economy that threaten Russia’s future – and with it, his power base.” And, Mr. Bremner adds, “for that he can blame a familiar nemesis: the U.S.”

The threat to Mr. Putin comes from stiffer US competition for Russia’s key energy sector, which provides half of the revenue for Putin’s government. The prices Russia can get selling oil and gas have weakened as US energy production has soared. Key factors in the stronger US performance: growing use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing as well as projects slated to add 2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas to the nation’s annual production. The challenge for Putin,

Bremner writes, is to revive the energy sector while trying to reduce Russia’s dependence on hydrocarbon exports.

At the heart of NSA eavesdropping

Gen. Keith Alexander, the man at the center of the National Security Agency eavesdropping controversy, is profiled by Shane Harris in Foreign Policy. As NSA director, Alexander runs the nation’s largest intelligence organization, one that has been in the news for tracking Americans’ telephone calls and online activities. He also runs the US Cyber Command, which defends military computer networks and is charged with responding to hostile acts by potential enemies in cyberspace.

The profile describes Alexander as a patriot, introspective, self-effacing, and given to corny jokes. But critics cited in the lengthy piece also assert that he “has become blinded by the power of technology.” 

Alexander’s approach is contrasted with that of his predecessor, Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden. “Hayden’s attitude was ‘Yes, we have the technological capability, but should we use it?’ Keith’s was ‘We have the capability, so let’s use it,’ ” according to a former intelligence official who worked with both men.

Enemy inside Camp Bastion

Taliban fighters, dressed as American soldiers, sneaked into a massive US air base in Afghanistan on the night of Sept. 14, 2012. Armed only with rifles and bags of raisins and nuts, the 15 intruders killed two marines, and destroyed six Harrier jets and an Air Force C-130 worth $200 million. In the latest issue of GQ, reporter Matthieu Aikins examines the battle at Camp Bastion, where the United States suffered the largest loss of aircraft in combat since Vietnam.

A number of factors were behind the loss of American lives and aircraft, Mr. Aikins found. Marine leaders cut the number of troops patrolling outside the fence around the base as the US prepared to turn over combat operations to the Afghans. A key section of base perimeter was controlled by the British, who had, in turn, delegated guard-tower duty to a handful of soldiers from the small nation of Tonga who lacked night-vision gear and had sometimes been found sleeping on duty.

How to protect your billions

Zachary Mider, writing for Bloomberg, a news organization founded by a billionaire, recently took an intriguing look at how America’s richest family – the heirs of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton – have arranged their affairs to dramatically minimize the effect of the estate tax on their $100 billion fortune. 

“The Waltons’ example highlights how billionaires deftly bypass a tax intended to make sure that the nation’s wealthiest contribute their share to government rather than perpetuate dynastic wealth,” Mr. Mider notes.

One tactic the Waltons use is a “Jackie O. trust,” named for former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whose will called for one. Jackie O. trusts “can theoretically save so much tax that it leaves a family richer than if it hadn’t given a dime to charity,” Mider writes. Of course, you have to have enough money so you don’t need to touch the trust for 20 years or more.

Fostering gender equity at Harvard

Harvard Business School’s effort to revamp its treatment of female students and faculty gets in-depth treatment in a New York Times Magazine piece. The stereotype is that all the students accepted at HBS are among the fortunate few destined for well-paid jobs in the executive suite. The reality, reporter Jodi Kantor found, was widely differing experiences based on a student’s gender and economic background.

“Harvard was worse than any trading floor,” according to students with a Wall Street background, with aggressive male students with strong finance backgrounds hazing both female students and teachers. Harvard set out to change that, spurred by the university’s female president, Drew Gilpin Faust. How did it turn out? “We made progress on the first-level things, but what it’s permitting us to do is see, holy cow, how deep-seated the rest of this is,” says Francis Frei, an HBS administrator.

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