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Bottom Line Becomes a Bad American Ethic

March 15, 1987|Norman Lear | Norman Lear is a writer, producer and chairman of Act III Communications, a media company. This article is adapted from remarks made at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

The societal disease of our time, I am convinced, is America's obsession with short-term success, its fixation with the proverbial bottom line. "Give me a profit statement this quarter larger than the last, and everything else be damned!" It took root in the business community, but has since spread beyond business and insinuated itself into the rest of our culture.

Short-term thinking, corrosive individualism, fixating on "economic man" at the expense of the human spirit, has taken an alarming toll. If the church was the focal point for personal values and public mores in medieval times, that role in our time has been assumed, unwittingly perhaps, by the modern corporation.

For better or worse, traditional institutions are no longer as influential in molding moral-cultural values as business. Mythologist Joseph Campbell has said that in medieval times, when one approached a city, one saw the cathedral and the castle. Now one sees the soaring towers of commerce. People build their lives around these towers.

Never before has the business of business been such a cultural preoccupation. If media attention is any indication of popular interest--and it is--today there is unprecedented interest in business affairs. Americans once found heroes in Congress, or in entertainment or sports; now more and more people find them in business: Lee Iacocca or Carl C. Icahn; until 10 minutes ago, Ivan F. Boesky, and until a moment ago, Martin A. Siegel.

If you grant the possibility that American business is the pre-eminent force in shaping our culture and its values, what example are its leaders setting?

The Wall Street Journal recently took an overview of the American corporation and concluded: "Gone is talk of balanced, long-term growth; impatient shareholders and well-heeled corporate raiders have seen to that. Now anxious executives . . . are focusing their efforts on trimming operations and shuffling assets to improve near-term profits."

There are no two-legged villains in this atmosphere, only victims. The villain is the climate caused by this bottom-line mentality. Daniel Bell has argued that in promoting an ethic of of "materialistic hedonism," the free-enterprise system tends to subvert the very values that help to sustain it--such values as social conscience, pride in one's work, commitment to community, loyalty to company--in short, a sense of the commonweal.

This ethic breeds in a climate where leadership everywhere--in business, government, labor, universities--refuses, through greed or myopia or weakness, to make provisions for the future. And in this climate we have been raising generations of children to believe that there is nothing between winning and losing.

America has become a game show. Winning is all that matters. Get-rich-quick. Take a look at the game board. It's not unlike the Monopoly board--but instead of real estate, just about every major American corporation represented is up for grabs. Owens Corning, NBC, Texaco and TWA are off the board now--but there are many more on the way. Just roll the dice, issue the junk bonds and watch the raiding and merging and acquisition. We've turned the old commonweal into the Common Wheel of Fortune. What fun.

The game produced 14 new billionaires last year--not to mention what it's done for foreign investors who, with their yens and marks, have caught on to our national lack of concern for the future. We are now selling them America about as cheaply as the Indians sold us Manhattan. On the surface, we seem to have accepted the selling of America just as we seem to have accepted the fact that we no longer make the best automobiles, best radios, stereos or TV sets.

It's easy to follow the escalation of the short-term obsession in recent years by looking at my industry, television, which happens to have the highest profile of all U.S. businesses. What other business has its performance rated half-hour by half-hour, seven days a week?

When I first got into television in the 1950s, the networks used to order 39 segments of a new program and a new entertainment series had nine full months to attract an audience; during the 13 weeks of summer, the networks would run "replacement" shows in order to experiment with new talent and innovative program ideas.

Slowly, over the years, as a way to increase profit margins, the networks began to pare back their commitment to innovation. In 1984, when we went on the air with the first show to feature a large Latino family, we were given four weeks to succeed.

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