There has scarcely been a time in its statehood when California has not held the nation in thrall. Whether the occasion has been a swoon for gold, or land, or oil, or sunshine, or celebrity or microchips, California has always been ready to accommodate it, and to remind the rest of the states of their shortcomings.

Like an obnoxious cousin of shadowy means and ostentatious bearing, California could always be dismissed or forborne, but never quite taken seriously. Until now, that is -- or so say Joel Kotkin and Paul Grabowicz in their appraisal of the place, "California, Inc."

The altogether plausible notion that drives this book is that the 31st state has come into its own at last, the beneficiary of its own energy and audacity and of the fortuitously declining fortunes of the old America to the north and east. No longer is California in the process of becoming; the dreams it has been feeding for so long have fused with reality.

The state is preeminent, the authors contend, because the pioneer spirit (rechristened the "entrepreneurial spirit") still counts for something on the frontier of late 20th-century capitalism. It is no wonder Ronald Reagan puts such stock in the magic of the marketplace; where he comes from everyone has a reason to, except for a few million blacks and Mexican-Americans.

Kotkin and Grabowicz, two prolific reporters who have served as California correspondents for The Washington Post, begin with the excruciatingly familiar evidence that the demographic, economic, political and cultural ballast of the United States has shifted since the end of World War II in the direction of California. The "new America" that has risen there thrives on a diverse and muscular economy -- of aerospace and computer technology, of entertainment and agriculture, of banking and international commerce -- that is currently more profitable and promising than that collected anywhere else in the country. We all know, if we paid attention during the last presidential campaign, that California would be the world's seventh largest industrial power if only (one always sensed a wistful tone in those two words) it were a sovereign nation.

This is not merely a formulation meant to impress Nebraskans. California is feeling its oats. To hear some of the gung-ho entrepreneurs tell it to the authors, the state's aggressive self-promotion in the last decade as an economic power on the so-called "Pacific Rim" is a deliberate step in fulfillment of its homegrown version of Manifest Destiny.

No one has been a greater champion of that cause than Jerry Brown, whose governorship has coincided with a period of uncommon prosperity in California. He has even conducted his own foreign policy with Pacific Ocean nations. The governor's legal adviser tells Kotkin and Grabowicz, with a brazen mindlessness so characteristic of the place, "We have an internationalist idea. I think nationalism is a reactionary force anyway." Sure. Whatever sounds good.

Meanwhile, back in the reactionary republic, the factories are making the wrong things and making them badly and driving their workers into unemployment lines. California looks a lot better. In the Silicon Valley south of San Francisco, where microprocessors have supplanted grapes as the cash crop, high-paying jobs in booming industries are awaiting those willing to learn the rudimentary skills. One test for a technician's job, as told tongue-in-cheek to the authors, goes like this: "The applicants are told to spell 'technician,' and they get two mistakes."

You may argue, as Kotkin and Grabowicz sometimes seem to, that the fundamental values that have always made America great -- grand visions, hard work and an appetite for risk -- have been distilled all over again for current purposes in California. The distillate is impure, however. There is no place for the fainthearted gentlemanliness and hidebound morality that is dragging the rest of the country down. The operative ethic in California is "an I for an I," as someone (the authors don't say who) once put it.

Whatever it is that has made California great has not necessarily made it good, as the authors' most absorbing chapter -- on California as the nation's emerging cultural fount -- makes clear. Among a people transfixed by the simplicity of pictures and impatient with the ambiguity of ideas, the electronic and celluloid images from Hollywood have become the images the nation has of itself. As the professional Californian Ben Stein observes: "L.A. is the original in the Xerox machine."

"In surrendering the cultural initiative to Hollywood," the authors write, "the nation has placed enormous power in the hands of a celebrity society with a peculiarly egotistic, businesslike, and morally lobotomized sense of values." They are "an elite without a past, without conscience, without, in the end, a sense of the social contract that glues a civilized society together."

Who, one might ask, said anything about a civilized society? Not, theretofore, Kotkin and Grabowicz. Indeed, because it happens so seldom, their refreshingly pointed detour into their own judgments of what California's ascendancy means suggests the large disappointment of "California, Inc." They have marshalled more than enough in the way of statistics and anecdotes and history to argue something -- anything -- about this sociological Everest they feel compelled to climb. Instead, they just set the material down and walk away. It's a pity their critical ambition doesn't match their obvious knowledge -- given the subject.