The ‘Bottom Line’ as American Mythnand Metaphornby Irving Louis Horowitz and Mary E. CurtisnThe question, “What is the bottom line?” has enterednthe lexicon of business as a near metaphysical given. Itnis so frequently applied to events calling for tough decisionmakingnthat it seems advisable to take a closer look at itsnmeaning. The phrase signals a no-nonsense approach tonbusiness thinking, where presumably decisions are madenwithout sentiment, but with skeptical, hardheaded realism.nTo some extent its widespread use reflects homage tonbusiness nomenclature applied to non-business areas. Justnpossibly, it may indicate the triumph of Milton Friedman’snsense of the importance of the “no free lunch” awareness ofneconomic factors in economically troubled situations. It alsonsuggests William James’ tough-minded thinker has enterednthe business world. In symbolic terms the phrase “bottomnline” is often presented as the cultural expression of thenneed for intelligent cash management in a tight economy,nwhere competition for investment and consumer dollars isnfierce.nWhatever its explanation or sources, the “bottom line”nhas become a social and political metaphor for modernntimes. Consider this sampling of news headlines in the pastndecade:nAs an expose of accounting practices of Americannbusiness: The Bottom Line is the title of a rather decent andnrecent 1987 text by Grace W. Weinstein.nAs the raison d’etre for the Olympics boycott: “Thenbottom line,” the President told senior aides at a WhitenHouse meeting, “is that if the Soviets are not out ofnAfghanistan, we are not going.”nIrving Louis Horowitz is Hannah Arendt professor ofnsociology and political science at Rutgers University, andnpresident of Transaction Publishers. Mary E. Curtis wasneditor-in-chief of Praeger Publishers and then publisher ofnthe periodicals division at John Wiley before becomingnsenior vice-president and publisher at Transaction.n26/CHRONICLESnnnAs to why drafting women in the Army would be anmistake: an American general declares that “The bottomnline is a fourth floor in a A hospital for girl paraplegics. Injust don’t want to see gals on the front lines.”nAs to the advisability of nuclear fuels: “Nuclear Power:nWhat’s the Bottom Line?”nAs to the superiority of one hamburger over another:n”The bottom line is that double cheeseburgers are better atnMcDonald’s!”nSuch illustrations can be multiplied one-hundredfold.nIndeed in business, emphasis on bottom line thinking is notnmetaphorical, but literal. It refers to the summaries onnprofit-and-loss statements and balance sheet tallies in general.nIndustries that rarely worry about the bottom line —nusually labor intensive rather than capital intensive industries,nor service oriented rather than product orientednorganizations — are now making it a major consideration innthe assessment of individual and group performance. As thenpopular adoption of the term suggests, the assumption is thatnanything can be reduced to its bottom line performance —nand anyone. Industries and companies and individuals whonnever felt they had to justify their performance solely onneconomic results, who in fact evinced a certain disdain fornsuch evaluation, have become aware that the bottom linencounts; it may sometimeis be the only thing that counts.nIndustries that never considered themselves businesses,nnonprofit organizations, for example, now measure themselvesnin quantitative terms as they compete for donations.nWhat does business mean by the bottom line? Simplynput, the bottom line may be any of several measurements ofnstability or growth employed by an enterprise to indicate itsnrelative success or failure, or to evaluate the performance ofnvarious sub-segments within a firm. The factors included innthis assessment are determined by management based onnwhat it wants the firm to achieve. In other words, the bottomnline is a fluid concept; it may be one thing at one time or inn