OCEANSIDE -- Head south from Los Angeles on Interstate 5 and the only respite from the houses, subdivisions and trailer parks marching down the Pacific coastline comes with the thousands of acres of the U.S. Marine Corps training base at Camp Pendleton and the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (tastefully labeled SONGS on Southern California Edison's signs). Protected by the Marines and the graceful twin domes of the nuclear plant, nature survives on the coastal bluffs above the beaches.

            If the empire's forward outpost is currently in Baghdad, surely the valley bottoms, mesas and shoreline of San Diego County, guarded on its northern edge by Camp Pendleton, offer a useful clue as to how power and privilege work in the imperial homeland. Looking beyond the laconic surfers lining up at dawn at Old Man's at San Onofre, and at the eager sightseers swarming into Legoland, we see a sour tableau of speculation, hyper-charged suburban development, dislocation and skyrocketing household debt.

            Oceanside is an unpretentious little city south of Camp Pendleton, visibly grateful to its military customers, whose bulky forms and shaven heads crammed my motel, as well as restaurants such as Rockin' Baja Lobster and Joe's Crab Shack, down in the marina. Signs proclaim support for the troops along with easy finance terms for underpaid servicemen and women. There are dollar drafts in the bars, and you can idle your motorcycle downtown without getting hassled. A couple of miles further south, the car lots suddenly give way to the manicured medians and rehabbed wetlands of Carlsbad.

            You don't have to drive more than a couple of blocks through Oceanside's main drag before the economic realities underpinning Empire become apparent. On the south side of the 4000 block on Pacific Coast Highway is a colorful storefront with two big signs shouting "We Support Our Troops" and "Welcome Home Heroes." But the biggest sign of all says "PAYDAY ADVANCE." The other side of the road there's a pawnshop, one of several in Oceanside, and there are several other storefronts offering advance loans for Marines who can't make it to the end of the month.

            Being poor in America -- a reality for millions who might once have called themselves middle class -- means having to face big debts each week, each month, without any decent financial services, and hence dealing with interest rates of around 20 percent.

            Though Oceanside is dowdy in comparison with Carlsbad, it's still a rich target of opportunity for San Diego's insatiable real estate investors. North County makes a mockery of the once venerated idea that the average American would own a home and use that as a primary store of wealth. This dream, enshrined in the only big tax break offered the middle class, the home mortgage, is a difficult one to achieve in San Diego County, where 88 percent of the population cannot afford to buy a median-price home.

            In a society whose overseas interests are guarded by those Marines borrowing against payday, wealth has risen to the top of the jar, like fat in a soup can. A recent study by the U.S. General Accounting Office tells us that in 1949, no less than 47 percent of all fiscal revenues were collected from corporations; today only 7 percent. In San Diego County, as elsewhere, the rich can speculate, buy up real estate, and use political clout to cut back on overall social services while taking exclusive advantage of that hallowed homeowners' tax shelter.

            In the interests of budget balancing, Gov Arnold Schwarzenegger is insisting that California must turn away qualified students from public universities in the state. The savings this year, according to George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times, will be just $45 million, and fee hikes from the students who do get in will be $218 million, all of which is nickel-and-dime stuff in plugging a $14 billion deficit in a state that came to greatness by offering a affordable college education to every qualified student. What Schwarzenegger won't do is raise taxes on California's very rich people, among them the two university chiefs who jointly pull in $722,000, plus vast perks.

            The enlisted servicemen and women hock stuff in the pawnshops and borrow against payday. The generals and the contractors buy up beach property and own stock in the institutions that bankroll the pawnshops. The military coming home from the war face rotten prospects in the service economy, only a rung or two above the farmworkers handling high-value crops (ornamental flowers, tomatoes, strawberries, etc.) nearby. These workers often sleep in the bushes and canyons, and get hunted out of their camps on the lagoons because the homeowners don't like to look at them and cities like Carlsbad has never built low-income housing.

            That's the face of empire, out the window of my motel in mid-May, 2004.

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.