Essay Explores Origin of ‘The Bottom Line’

July 10, 2006 at 6:40 PM EDT

ROGER ROSENBLATT, NewsHour Essayist: In the early 1980s, about the time I wrote my first essay on the NewsHour, the phrase “bottom line” came into common usage.

In a mere 25 years, the phrase has so governed, indeed overwhelmed, American thinking, one wonders where it had been all the years before that.

Bottom line, the other words for profit, gain, more money as opposed to less, all those things on which the great free market civilization depends for its power.

Why did not America speak of the bottom line at the time of the Gold Rush, the oil rush, the Rockefellers, Carnegies, the Ford motor car, the Edison light bulb, U.S. steel, General Motors, General Electric, Coke and Pepsi, and all the other items of merchandise that made us the biggest most impressive store in the world?

We did not say “bottom line” in those years of invention and expansion for the same reason Victorian England did not speak of sex: because it was the only thing on their minds.

They didn’t speak of sex because they did not want to be ruled by it. And for the same reason, America, for a very long time, did not want to be ruled by the only thing on our minds: money.

The streets might be paved with gold, but we wanted to see who was walking those streets. Thus the first principles of the nation as it came into being: liberty, equality, that sort of stuff.

It wasn’t that the founders failed to recognize the other stuff, the stuff of getting and spending, but they knew we wouldn’t count for much if all we did was count. Since America didn’t speak of bottom lines, it spoke of the New Deal, and the fair deal, and civil rights, and the war against poverty, and similar topics of conversation.

Call it a mutually-shared deception. As long as one did not admit the obvious, that the engine of the country ran on dollars, one could focus on other things.

We might not always succeed with ambitions like liberty and equality, but we could talk a very good game. Take away that innocent pretense, that America is made up of something other than money, and the country changes, considerably for the worse.

And so, since the early 1980’s, we have changed, because that mutually-shared deception, at least as noble as it illusory, has been cast away. Now, one cannot think of a single area of American life that does not define itself proudly and brazenly by the bottom line.

Books are judged on sales; movies by the first weekend’s gross; Broadway, of course; sports, the size of the contract.

Whose mind rules television? “That’s a good one, Mr. Trump!”

As for business itself, the belly of the beast, time was when companies actually thought and spoke of something besides profits: employee benefits; loyalty; the use of a product for public good.

They were beside the point, to be sure, but they were believed in, and prominent, and acted upon, which, come to think of it, is why civilizations hold onto shared deceptions in the first place.

As long as America told itself that part of its business was to pull up the other guy, and to make sure that black and white and the colors in between, and the genders, and the sexual orientations were in this mess together, it had something to act on.

When that fine talk is tossed away and all you’ve got is the bottom line, there’s no place to go but down.

One reason to get off the money kick is that it’s boring. Another has to do with posterity. Keep staring at the bottom line, and that’s how our civilization will be remembered.

America? It knew the value of a dollar, and that’s all it knew.

That’s the thought I’d like to leave you with in this, my last essay for the NewsHour, which has also been around since the early 1980s; the NewsHour, where the only bottom line has been to try to find the truth.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.