Saturday, August 31, 2013

Taking the war to Congress

So Obama's going to ask Congress for approval to bomb Syria.  A few brief comments about...

Constitutional Law

-I don't think Obama needs to do this.  People keep invoking the War Powers Act but the War Powers Act is very clear: you have to go to Congress after hostilities begin, and even if Congress votes to end them, you have a grace period to withdrawal.  A president who fails to obtain congressional authorization under the War Powers Act has 30-90 days to act legally, depending on how events progress.

-With that said, there's no doubt that this will be a strong precedent for future presidents and future wars, and increase the pressure to consult with the legislature before bombing someone.  That's particularly true if Obama's measure fails and he's forced to abandon the plan.  This might be an upside for Obama personally, who could see it as an opportunity to restore the balance of power between the branches and accomplish a domestic goal in lieu of a foreign one.

Domestic Politics

-The wisdom of letting Congress determine foreign policy and make military decisions is, well, at least a little fuzzy.  I'm all for legislative governance as a general principle.  But the legislature in question needs to be minimally functional, and Congress isn't.  Its various pathologies--non-proportional representation, multiple veto points, the filibuster--make it very poorly suited for the task.  David Waldman summed up the problem with a tweet earlier:  "Stand by for the first-ever demand for [budget] offsets for a military strike."  It sounds like a joke but who's to say it couldn't happen?  The GOP caucus has shown itself, time and again, to be more interested in scoring points against Obama than anything else; why would this be any different?  The conventional wisdom is that a failure to approve action would be a political failure for the president; does anyone honestly expect the GOP to not take this into consideration when they're casting votes?

-Some people have suggested failure is part of Obama's plan: he talked himself into a corner on Syria, and failure in Congress will give him a graceful, if politically embarrassing, exit from the debate.  I'll admit the thought crossed my mind at first, but that explanation just seems too cute by half.  Then again, crazier things have happened.  Who knows?

The Effects on Syria

-A couple important elements of this plan are getting widely overlooked.  One is time.  Congress won't vote for at least a week, which means military strikes aren't going to happen for a while.  During that week, the hammer will be raised over Syria, while very public debate occurs over whether to let it drop.  That gives Assad a chance to react, which isn't an entirely a bad thing.  Knowing he's in a bad spot, he's got a chance to forestall action against him by changing his current war footing--no compromise, total war--to something more acceptable to the United States.  Of course, he could also hide his chemical stockpiles or fortify key targets, so there are downsides too.

-And then there's the other part of this plan, maybe the most important element of its effect on Syria. I read a Fred Kaplan column earlier today about how "shots across the bow" don't work.  He has a point: failing to shoot at someone isn't a good way to warn them that you're willing to shoot them; likewise, in order to show Assad that chemical weapon use will invite retribution, Obama would actually have to launch substantial strikes, not minimal, symbolic strikes.  But by seeking congressional authorization, Obama has taken the issue out of his hands.  No one can question anymore that Obama is willing to attack Syria, even if an attack on Syria may or may not happen.  And there's at least a good chance that it'll end with strikes being authorized.  For Assad, it's not a shot across the bow, it's Russian Roulette, and the barrel is spinning.  It's clever, because it demonstrates Obama's resolve without firing a shot.

Combine that with the timing issue above, and it might force concessions from Syria without actual war.  At the very least, it creates pressure to leave the chemical weapons at home: congressional failure to approve war this time doesn't mean the same thing will happen next time, and Assad has to know his odds get worse with each go-round.

How to think about Syria (step one: don't think about Iraq)

When it comes to Syria, I feel like I'm a little bit stuck in the middle.  On one hand, I certainly don't support strikes to any real degree, as I did in Libya.  On the other hand, I can't help but be frustrated with most reactions to the prospect of strikes, which I think are far too negative for largely the wrong reasons.

When weighing the wisdom of an attack on Syria, you have to consider two questions.

First, should the US be using military force to enforce international law and achieve humanitarian ends?  

Second, can the US, in this instance, enforce international law and achieve humanitarian ends with the use of force?  

Let's do this backwards.  I think the second question is a very hard call in this case.  The amount of deliberation in the administration and in the media supports the idea that the situation is complicated, and the effectiveness and consequences of military action are hard to predict.  

The contrast between this and Libya is clear: Syria is bigger, less geographically conducive to strikes, the sides are less well-defined, the chances of getting entangled in the conflict are higher, and a perpetual stalemate is a less acceptable outcome today.  At the time of the Libyan intervention, I blogged about the reasons intervention made sense, and most of them don't apply here.  I favored strikes in Libya because the particulars of the situation made a positive outcome likely; the particulars of the situation in Syria are far more complex.  That means that the course of any military strike is both harder to foresee, and more dependent on information that non-expert bloggers (me!) don't have at their disposal.  But our history of pulling these things off without a hitch isn't wonderful.  Hence my deep ambivalence.  

The majority of observers, however, seem to be basing their opposition not off the second question, but the first.  You can tell because the reasons they give for opposing the strikes have nothing to do with the specifics of the situation and would apply even if the military had a slam-dunk plan to end the conflict with minimal loss of life.  That includes arguments like this supposed constitutional case by former Bush legal advisor Jack Goldsmith (which somehow manages to discuss decades of US military interventions without mentioning the word "Iraq"), and Matt Yglesias's neo-isolationist take, which, at its most extreme, sometimes seems to be "Why do anything militarily as long as malaria exists?"

Underlying these views, and much of the other opposition, I think, is an implicit wariness of military action in the Middle East in the wake of the Iraq War.  That's understandable; Iraq was a disaster.  But refusing to recognize the clear distinctions between this war and Iraq , if anything, gives credence to the  lies told in support of the previous war.  

The fact is, Iraq was neither conducted for good reasons nor conducted well.  It was clear at the time, and became more clear as time passed, that Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction, was not meaningfully backing terrorist groups, and was not single-handedly preventing the flowering of democracy in the Middle East.  Even if the war had been executed beautifully, none of those things would have become more true, and it would have been a failure and a waste.  

As it stands, of course, it was not executed well, and turned into a years-long quagmire, in which thousands of Americans and untold Iraqis lost their lives, at the cost of billions of dollars and a huge amount of American international prestige.  

But sometimes it feels like people are letting the memory of the military failures in Iraq blot out the memory of the war's fraudulent origins, and, as a result, have learned entirely the wrong lesson from that conflict.  Iraq does not teach us that intervention to prevent the use of WMDs is a bad idea; it also does not teach us that it's always foolish to save human lives when they're threatened by a dictator.  Iraq should have taught us to conduct better and deeper analysis before rushing off to war.  Instead, a lot of people seem to have learned that it is futile to use force to protect other human beings, and foolish to try.  

In a way, this is a late victory for Bush and his acolytes: people who interpret Iraq as demonstrating that military force backed by good intentions can never have a happy ending for humanity are allowing that the previous administration was motivated by good intentions.  

It's not fair comparison.  The "should we use military force to enforce norms and save lives" question laid out above never applied to Iraq: regardless of how you answered it, it was inapplicable to the situation.  But that war's failure seems to have induced many people to answer the question for them, and in the negative.  The logic is flawed and the reason why is relevant here.  We could never help anyone by stopping Saddam from using WMDs because he didn't have any; Assad unquestionably possesses WMDs and is by most accounts actively using them against civilian populations.  

That doesn't rule out opposition to strikes, of course.  There are people with other rationales, predating Iraq, for opposing US intervention for humanitarian ends, and it's completely possible that someone could believe that strikes in Syria are militarily unworkable.  But the number of people properly in the former category seems pretty small--between Iraq, Libya, and Kosovo, most of the current skeptics have previously demonstrated some sympathy for the idea of intervening in other nation's affairs for reasons other than furthering immediate American interests--and the latter objection would require detailed discussion of the particulars of a Syrian operation, discussion which has in reality been pretty sparse.  

At the end of the day, the circumstances don't seem very conducive to strong opposition or support, but slight opposition or cautious support.  That these positions aren't very much in evidence suggests that people aren't approaching the question from the right direction, and are letting the ghosts of Iraq haunt their thinking.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The war narrative

Ostensibly, an attack in Syria is still under consideration, not a done deal.  The UK is wavering, the UN isn't convinced, and Obama himself hasn't come out in support of military action.

But how do you stop this train once it's already rolling?  We're already in the build-to-war narrative, one that Americans know very well; recent history tells us there's only way this story ends. 

Conor Friedersdorf wrote a wonderful piece yesterday about how all the articles discussing "mounting pressure on Obama to intervene" are indulging in a bizarre conceit, focusing on the growing consensus in a tiny cabal of DC-based foreign policy gurus, while ignoring the consensus against war among virtually everyone else.  I do hope Obama has the good sense to ignore these people, although I can't know for sure. But what worries me is that, in order to start a war, they don't have to make a case for bombing Syria.  They just have to keep talking about it.  

Because as long as the prospect of war is in the headlines, any slowdown in the process seems like a break, an intermission, a hiatus, but not the conclusion of the matter.  We found evidence of Syrian wrongdoing; that's Act One.  We're in Act Two now, marshaling the troops.  

My fear is that we don't know how to avoid having an Act Three.  

It wouldn't feel right, would it?  It wouldn't feel right if Obama just came out tomorrow and said "After weighing the evidence, we've decided to avoid doing anything," and that was that.  No, something has to happen, because that's how these things work.

It way I expect the foreign policy world to treat this situation reminds me of one of those fake choices that sometimes show up in video games:

It's August 29. Do you want to bomb Syria?  >>>  Yes/NO

Okay.  It's August 30.  Do you want to bomb Syria?  >>>  Yes/NO

Okay.  It's August 31.  Do you want to bomb Syria?  >>>  Yes/NO

Okay.  It's September 1.  Do you want to bomb Syria?  >>>  YES/No

It's not that the conclusion to the narrative is written in stone; certainly even DC's prognosticators and pontificators disagree about how strikes in the Middle East would play out.  The danger isn't any consensus over the buildup's likely result, but the sentiment that the buildup needs to be to something.  The US needs to take action, or Assad needs to take action, or something dramatic needs to occur.  But if nothing happens, and nothing changes, and the civil war in Syria proceeds apace, Obama is going to be badgered to act every day until he does.  Because no one likes a story without an ending.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The American Civil War is a pretty good name for a war

Over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, Erik Loomis decries the current modern practice of calling the Civil War "the Civil War," instead of any number of other, supposedly more accurate things, like "The War of the Rebellion" and "The War the South Lost Because It Was Run by a Bunch of Racist Hicks and Did We Mention That They Lost?"

Now I'm not exactly sympathetic to those who would romanticize the South's role in the war, having grown up amongst a not-insubstantial population of such people.  But this is fairly loopy.  Loomis calls the current nomenclature history written by the losers, and in doing so apparently loses sight of the fact that we should aspire to not let the winners write history either, or indeed, anyone but actual historians.  Naming events so as to best capture your political sympathies, however sympathetic they may be, isn't what I'd call "playing fair."  Besides, if we'd somehow opted to call the Civil War "The War of the North's Glorious and Just Victory," I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say we might have a fair few more people today questioning the actual justness of the result.  

Besides, this argument is pretty silly, just from a semiotic perspective.  Names don't warp interpretation of events, but the opposite.  It's not like there's a scientific definition of "civil war" as opposed to "rebellion"'; it's hardly unreasonable to call a conflict in which the nation divided in half and fought over a major social issue the former instead of the latter.  But even if that weren't the case, no one is extrapolating actual history from the name.  "Civil War" now refers to a very specific event, and when you hear the word, you think of the event and work from there.  Loomis's concern suggests that there exists a large population with a sophisticated, precise definition of the differences between "civil wars" and "rebellions," but who possesses no prior knowledge of a major historical event that utterly reshaped America and no preconceived notions about the rightness or wrongness of each side's actions.  Call me skeptical.

tl;dr: What we call things usually really isn't that important, people.  Stop hand-wringing over it.

Urban males fail to rob store, news at 11

In New Jersey, a security camera captured four college football players accidentally finding their way into a closed convenience store, taking some items, and leaving cash on the counter.  Somehow, this is making headlines all the way out in Minnesota.

Hey, it's nice seeing good deeds rewarded and all.  But the only reason I can figure that anyone finds this headline-worthy is because it's a shock for some to discover "They're honest, law-abiding people, just like us!"

"They" in this case refers to young, male college athletes, and certainly not any other category of young males which news watchers might expect to engage in criminal behavior.

Movies: Elysium

Saw Elysium today.  It was moderately enjoyable and completely silly.  That's a shame: it was directed by Neill Blomkamp, who also made District 9; the latter movie being, I think, almost completely unique among American science-fiction films, in that it managed the trifecta of creating a plausibly complicated world, raising hard questions worthy of Actual Real-Life Pondering, and keeping me entertained with some genuinely whiz-bang action scenes where stuff blew up.

By comparison, Elysium only managed the third, and kind of the second, but probably not in the way it intended.

The movie's world is superficially pretty interesting: technology has apparently progressed, leading to the automation of most jobs.  Robots don't just run production lines, but also serve as cops, waiters, and parole officers.  (Actually, one of the movie's more subtle inconsistencies--or, if you want to be generous, ironies--is that living, breathing human beings do still work in production lines.  This leads to at least one horrifying onscreen industrial accident, leading me to wonder if everyone wouldn't be happier if we put the robot waiters in the factories.  Anyway.)

This leads to two major economic consequences, both of which are somewhat cleverly extrapolated from existing trends.  First, mass unemployment--it's implied that virtually no one has a job.  And second, extraordinary concentration of wealth.

Okay, so none of this is really said in the film.  But it's clearly what has happened, and it's a pretty smart take.  This, after all, is the great puzzle of advancing technology.  Increased productivity means that per capita wealth increases--but since virtually all modern economic systems distribute wealth primarily on the basis of work and employment, a problem quickly arises.  The gains of increased productivity fall mainly to those still working, and the people whose jobs have been replaced actually suffer as a result.  The wealth, in short, concentrates at the top, and without adequate methods for effective redistribution of resources, the concentration intensifies as technology improves.  The world of Elysium is one where this process has reached its natural conclusion: the ultra-wealthy manage the world, and almost no else does anything that matters.  And they're dirt poor.

Oh, wait!  I forgot an important detail.  The ultra-wealthy manage the world... from a space station.  Called Elysium, naturally.  It's huge and contains entire suburban neighborhoods (right down to loopy arterial roads), which are full of white people doing white person things.*

Anyway, the space station looks like the Hamptons and Earth proper looks like... well, the slums of District 9.  Everything that isn't people seems to be extinct (giraffes get a callout) and overall the terrestial neighborhood has gone completely to seed.  Matt Damon lives on Earth and want to get to the station.  Hijinks ensue.

But here an odd twist emerges.  The real benefit to living on the station isn't just that you get to stand around all the time, drinking white wine, owning golden retrievers, and talking about Portlandia over brunch, although that appears to be what's happening every time we check in up there. The main perk is that you get access to free, universal health care.  And not just any health care, but Magical Healing Pods, which instantly diagnosis and repair any conceivable medical condition.  (Some choice examples, drawn from the dialogue of the movie itself: dismemberment, old age, cancer, shanking, and radiation poisoning.)  The hoi polloi, you see, don't want access to Elysium itself, but to this very specific resource, which the Elysiumites apparently control in its entirety.  It's this conflict--over access to medicine, not over the distribution of wealth--which propels the movie forward, as the sick and dying attempt to find their way onto the station.**

And so we've arrived at the source of virtually all the movie's problems.  Problem number one: the medically afflicted population of Earth appears to be composed exclusively of angelic children of color, suffering from some grotesquely, comically horrible condition like "multiple severe compound fractures" or "coma induced by late stage leukemia."

This is a cheat.  One of the more wonderful qualities of District 9 was Blomkamp's willingness to make its aliens really pretty gross to look at.  It was not hard to see how people could dehumanize those aliens, and as the film increasingly took their perspective, the feeling it elicited in audiences might be described as honest-to-god empathy, earned through experience. Here, the movie doesn't trust us to care about its teeming masses unless they're comatose, adorable, and carried by their long-suffering, tear-streaked mothers. It's kind of appalling, in that it conveys a real concern by the film's creators that we might find aliens of the undoucmented sort more reflexively repugnant than District 9's giant cockroaches.

Problem number two: wait, how do the economics of this make any sense?

The basic difficulty is that the film makes no attempt to connect the Magical Healing Pods to any notion of resource scarcity.  If anything, it actively promotes the idea that there's plenty of Healing Pods to go around.  And that, you'll note, makes the elite's unwillingness to help the masses pretty friggin' hard to explain.  It would cost them nothing!  They don't even have to get their hands dirty, because there's a robot army to do the actual lifting-and-carrying-of-dying-orphans for them.  On the other hand, there are lots and lots of very good incentives to embark upon some sort of humanitarian mission, even if we assume all rich people are purely self-interested.  Chief among those is the incentive of preventing their space station from getting invaded by looters and, to use a technical term, completely jacked up, which is of course exactly what ends up happening.

It might seem like a minor oversight, but it totally strips the film of any political currency it might have otherwise.  Scarcity is the motivating fact behind any and every dispute over the distribution of wealth; thus, by building a world in which scarcity plays no role in the decisions of the powerful, Elysium ensures the harsh choices made by its villains are essentially motiveless.  Simply put, these people are really, really bad and that's all we need to know.  

The essential political flatness of the film holds true no matter which side of the whole take-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor thing you're on.  After all, in real life, the key to the dilemma is that you are taking from someone, and you've got to figure out a way to reckon with that, to be sure the taker is more deserving than the takee.  By suggesting that nobody is losing anything in the process--justly or otherwise--Elysium avoids the heart of the issue and gives reformers an easy out.  Coming from the other direction, the film is equally toothless.  Even the most ardent libertarian could probably get behind the film's proletarian protagonists, because, again, no wealth or property is lost.  The only political sensibility the film appears to be testing is what the audience believes about the all-important "should little girls with leukemia die or not" question.

What's especially frustrating about this is that any indication--any suggestion at all--that there simply isn't enough Super Magic Medicine to go around would suddenly make Elysium into a very interesting movie.

It wouldn't absolve the movie's rich, of course.  They'd still be ignoring tremendous suffering while stockpiling vast wealth for themselves.  But their ability to ignore suffering without working to ameliorate it would represent a sea change in the workings of society, the kind of thing that very good science fiction movies are often about.

What am I saying?  Well, creating entitlements is pretty much Subverting Political Radicals 101.  From Imperial Prussia on to today, every politician worth his salt has known that giving the underclasses a sop now and again is a pretty good way to keep torches and pitchforks at bay.  But, as Elysium almost-but-not-quite points out, it doesn't have to go on like that forever.  Put the people at the top of the pyramid on a space station, thousands of miles away from any angry mob.  Let robots do manual labor instead of the poor.  Through the concentration of wealth and advancement of technology, the rich have completely escaped the need to appease the masses and can safely forget about them.  In that movie--which again, doesn't exist--the rich have, in escaping the planet's gravity, escaped society's political gravity as well.

But this alternate Elysium couldn't proceed the way it does or end the way it does. Without discussing too many plot details, it's enough to say that compromises would have to be made that aren't made, and certain heroic characters would be a good deal more middling.  Instead, it's the movie itself that's middling.  It wants to be seen as political while dodging all politics, which leaves us watching Matt Damon punching robots in space and Jodie Foster inventing the strangest accent you've ever heard.  If that last sentence sounds like half a recommendation, I'd say half's about right.




*Nerdy physics tangent: due to the improbable size of the station and its distance from Earth I assume it's parked at an Earth-Moon Lagrangian, which, as I understand it, would be a pretty good place to put a space station.  That hardly matters but it's interesting to consider why I assume anyone has bothered to think about this: the aesthetics of Neill Blomkamp's movies are fine-tuned to suggest that they have some basis in Actual Science, and that impression remains strong well beyond the point that the rational brain should reject it.  Elysium, for instance, managed to sustain my belief in its overall scientific soundness far longer than I'm proud to admit: past the miniature VTOL space shuttles, past the robotic military exoskeletons, even past the Dune-style personal deflector shields, only crashing down into the rocky shoals of incredulity after a magical medical pod, for all intents and purposes, rebuilt a gruesomely disfigured man from scratch, including a perfectly groomed beard.  I think he (Blomkamp, not the reconstructed man) does it by including idiosyncratic details that serve no real purpose but do get the mental wheels turning; when a merc picks up a gun labelled "ChemRail," the odd name suggests a reference to something outside the audience's experience, when it may in fact be a reference to nothing at all.

**The movie quickly establishes a direct parallel between these trespassers and modern-day illegal immigrants, as they're rounded up Homeland Security and "deported" back to LA.  From here it's not too much of a leap to see the entire movie as an anti-Obamacare parable, seeing as how it literally does depict universal health care as an inducement for aliens to sneak across borders and leech off the tax dollars of real citizens and so on.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

In a first, virtually all Americans oppose blowing up another country

Well, that's unexpected:
As Secretary of State John Kerry made the Obama administration’s most forceful statement yet on Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons, a new Reuters/Ipsos poll finds just 9 percent of Americans supporting intervention in Syria with about 60 percent opposed. As Max Fisher notes, this means intervention is even less popular among American than Congress. . . . By contrast, 47 percent of Americans supported the U.S. intervention in Libya in 2011, which Talking Points Memo noted at the time was the “lowest level of support for an American military campaign in at least 30 years.” 76 percent of American initially supported the Iraq War, 90 percent supported U.S. action in Afghanistan in 2001.
Nine percent?!  Nine percent of Americans will agree to just about anything.  More than nine percent of Americans believe in witchcraft.

To me, this level of support is almost inexplicably low. Obviously, the country's recently had some bad experiences meddling in the Middle East, but the most salient comparison, the bombing campaign in Libya, actually went quite well.  It's true that all the evidence suggests that an attack on Syria would be harder to manage--I, for one, supported the Libyan action but have much more mixed feelings about the present situation.  Still, it's hard to believe that the average American has a sophisticated opinion about the relative challenges posed by the two operations--or, for that matter, an opinion that extends beyond "Hey, I heard some bad business is going down."

That in turn suggests to me that such a crazily low number is, at least partially, an artifact of partisan signaling.  A public generally ignorant of the particulars of the situation would be especially reliant on elite viewpoints to shape their own; right now, whether for reasons diplomatic or political, no one in the government is really openly discussing all the military options that are surely on the table.  If Obama or the GOP starts talking up a bombing campaign, I'd expect support to rise rapidly.

Nonetheless, this poll has also got to make Assad feel better about his current predicament, seeing as how any US politician would be reluctant to support a military action that's probably slightly less popular than strip-mining Mount Rushmore.

But before he gets too comfortable, it's worth looking at the other numbers in the quote above.  Support for Iraq and Afghanistan were quite high, but both turned out to be politically pretty disastrous.  Support for Libya was historically low--much lower than for Bush's two wars--but there's really no evidence the campaign to remove Qaddafi has harmed Obama to any measurable degree.  At the end of the day, it's not public opinion before a military operation that counts, it's public opinion afterwards.  Successful execution is still the best way to win people over.  So while the Reuters poll is startling and sure to catch the eye of any national politician, it would be a mistake for the administration to lose sight of the only two factors that really matter: figuring out whether taking action is necessary, and figuring out if the military could do so effectively without making things worse.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The problem with Skyler White

Breaking Bad is fantastic, and you should be watching it. If you're not watching it, don't read this post. Also don't tell me, because I won't respect you quite as much afterwards.

With that said, I wanted to build off this "mild" critique of Skyler's character, from--who else--Matt Yglesias:
Skyler-hating has tended to be tinged (or worse) with misogyny, and consequently I think a pernicious pro-Skyler sentiment has become the conventional wisdom among TV-watching’s intellectual elite. This episode, though, highlighted exactly what’s wrong with Skyler: For someone who’s so scoldy about the drug kingpin lifestyle, she sure seems like a willing accomplice.
Yglesias is dead-on about the critics: TV writers are generally in the Skyler camp because they want to disassociate themselves with the people most vocally opposed to her, not because of anything particularly to do with the show itself, or the character portrayed on the screen. I myself am a Skyler agnostic. I never found the character egregiously annoying, and her relationship with Hank and Marie is consistently enjoyable.

But there's never been an episode where the show cut away from Skyler, and to Walt or Hank or Gus, and I was disappointed. Can you think of one?  I'd honestly be surprised if even the character's bigger boosters could. Which, for me, casts their declarations of support somewhat in doubt.

Look, let's face it. There are a lot of fantastic characters on Breaking Bad. Skyler White is not one of them; she's pretty good at best. I suspect, whether or not they'd admit it, virtually everyone feels this way on some level, at least to the extent demonstrated by my little thought experiment above. The question is why they feel this way.

One explanation (often put forward) is that it's because she's a woman. That's not totally crazy to suspect and is undoubtedly true for many viewers. But there's a deeper problem that's been obscured by the internet's back-and-forth over the character. Here's the short version of the internet debate (as you can see in the Yglesias post above): Skyler haters often seem to believe that she should be impressed by her husband's achievements, while the pro-Skyler crowd has, not unreasonably, pointed out that it would be implausible for her to react favorably upon discovering that her spouse is running a minor criminal empire.

This debate misses the point. The fundamental problem with Skyler's character isn't her stance on Walt, it's that her role in the show is more-or-less reactive in nature. It's a problem baked into the show from a very early date: in the first half of its run, Breaking Bad was about a man leading a double life as a suburban dad and a meth cook. In order to keep that balance, it was important that Skyler's motivations remain relatively mundane. But having established that fact, it now wouldn't make sense for have her own major criminal designs independent of Walt's. As a result, there's only two possible ways for the character to evolve: she can work to restore the domestic status quo ante, or she can work to support Walt, but essentially as a subordinate player in his scheme. The show has toyed with both, but in either case the dynamic is the same: Walt's the prime mover, and consequently, it's always more interesting to see what he (or one of the other independent players) is up to.

But before I give too much aid and comfort to Skyler's detractors, there's something worth considering: Jesse has, at times, had the exact same problem as Skyler. Regardless of whether he's at loggerheads with Walt or helping him out, the writers have never convincingly removed him from Walt's immediate orbit. But he attracts a lot less hate from viewers, something that probably partially does have a lot to do with him not being a woman.

UPDATE: Charles suggested another, simpler, better explanation.  Unlike Walt, Jesse, Mike, Saul, Hank, Marie, and essentially every other character on the show, Skyler never really gets a comic scene.  Even her interactions with Ted, which could have been funny, generally weren't.  Breaking Bad needs comedy to balance out its darkness and abrasiveness, and when Skyler's around, you can rest assured that no comedy will be forthcoming.