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On Hollywood Boulevard, the glamour of the Walk of Fame is rebuked by the harsh realities endured by many people, in a state where a $15-billion deficit (due in part to ballot measures that have restricted taxes) threatens the social fabric. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
On Hollywood Boulevard, the glamour of the Walk of Fame is rebuked by the harsh realities endured by many people, in a state where a $15-billion deficit (due in part to ballot measures that have restricted taxes) threatens the social fabric. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Reading the stars in California, where the political map is most starkly etched Add to ...

Leo’s last school, like many in the city, could not afford a librarian, so the parents held a fundraiser to pay her salary. (At one such event, Billy Idol performed. Welcome to L.A.!)

Barack Obama was meant to be the education president. The slow movement of his reforms is one of the reasons that California liberals such as Karen and Vito, who enthusiastically backed Mr. Obama four years ago, are in a far less sanguine mood this election. Hollywood and Silicon Valley are still backing the Democrats, but without 2008’s euphoria.

This presidential election, too, has heard a lot about education: Mr. Romney is pushing individual school choice and vouchers for parents; Mr. Obama’s Race to the Top program is a competition between states to improve their schools and win large federal grants. But unless things turn around, the country will go the way of California, which has plummeted to 35th in education spending (and failed to qualify in Race to the Top).

America’s education levels are far behind other advanced countries. Here in California, Tuesday’s vote includes a referendum to raise school taxes; if it fails, the state will lose $6-billion in revenue for education, and the school year, already truncated, will be slashed by a further three weeks.

Karen does not know what she will do if that happens. She is from Windsor, Ont., and remembers the man who administered her U.S. citizenship test making her write, three times: “I will work hard.” But everybody’s working hard, spinning their wheels, not getting ahead. It’s a little like this bus.

The decade-old photo is, at first glance, an innocent domestic moment: It shows us, 11 years younger, standing on a sunny Pacific beach with our then-weeks-old son Griff held aloft. It takes a moment to notice that something is wrong: The usually frenetic sands of Santa Monica Beach are devoid of people, despite its being a sunny day.

The streets behind us do not have much traffic, and the sky is an impossible blue, without any of the usual vapour trails. This could only be shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, and only a pair of dazed journalists would have thought to buck the fleeing millions and take the baby to the beach.

Before that day, life here had been defined by what one commentator called “nap time in America.” The tech boom had dominated the state. Doug had written an article that summer about how little important news was happening, and it had run on the front page. The lengthy Los Angeles trial of Canadian terrorist Ahmed Ressam taught us that al-Qaeda “sleeper cells” were plotting something, but it was not until that sunny Tuesday that the new contours of American political life became visible.

The following months were full of days spent in army barracks watching soldiers pack, evenings in near-vacant hotels near terror suspects’ homes, visits to families torn apart by the sudden overseas deployment of reservists who had signed up in order to receive free health care and university assistance, but had never expected to fight.

The life, landscape and economy here would become far more militarized: Today, the military and its contractors are the largest employers in California, which has by far the largest military population in the United States, with 160,000 active-duty soldiers and an additional 60,000 reservists – half of whom have by now served at least one term in Afghanistan or Iraq.

All told, more than two million American soldiers have now served in Afghanistan or Iraq. Many have returned from war, at an average age of 26, into the middle of America’s deepest recession in three generations. During the Obama years, attention has gradually shifted from the wars abroad to the veterans’ plight – but by most accounts, not enough.

The southern part of L.A.’s historic downtown has become a refugee camp for lost soldiers, spanning a dozen blocks and encompassing more than 20 major shelters and hundreds of cardboard-box encampments – a landing pad for the human dregs of the global war on terror.

Agencies here estimate that the streets of downtown L.A. are home to between 8,000 and 9,000 homeless veterans, and that may be just the beginning: “A lot of them spend a few years couch surfing and pretending they have a normal life before they hit rock bottom and end up here,” one skid-row charity worker tells us.

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