The 'Bottom Line' as American Myth and Metaphor

The question, "What is the bottom line?" has entered the lexicon of business as a near metaphysical given. It is so frequently applied to events calling for tough decisionmaking that it seems advisable to take a closer look at its meaning. The phrase signals a no-nonsense approach to business thinking, where presumably decisions are made without sentiment, but with skeptical, hardheaded realism. To some extent its widespread use reflects homage to business nomenclature applied to non-business areas. Just possibly, it may indicate the triumph of Milton Friedman's sense of the importance of the "no free lunch" awareness of economic factors in economically troubled situations. It also suggests William James' tough-minded thinker has entered the business world. In symbolic terms the phrase "bottom line" is often presented as the cultural expression of the need for intelligent cash management in a tight economy, where competition for investment and consumer dollars is fierce.

Whatever its explanation or sources, the "bottom line" has become a social and political metaphor for modern times. Consider this sampling of news headlines in the past decade:

As an exposé of accounting practices of American business: The Bottom Line is the title of a rather decent and recent 1987 text by Grace W. Weinstein.

As the raison d'être for the Olympics...

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