Some Reflections on The Bull

Auturo DiModica is an Italian born artist who sculpted Charging Bull (seen above) on his own initiative and at his own expense. In 1989, he just up and “gave” it to the people of the City of New York by having it transported to a spot in front of the New York Stock Exchange and just left it there. The NYPD impounded it. Public outcry saved the bull from oblivion and it was mounted in Bowling Green square, about 3 blocks south from where DiModica had left it.

There are stories that during the September 2008 crisis, people were actually been praying to this bull to bring the market back. How’s that for Biblical symbolism? DiModica must be thrilled, even if that wasn’t his intent in the sculpture.

DiModica says he was inspired to sculpt it after the stock market crash of 1987. His tribute was to what he saw as the perseverance and unrelenting spirit of the American people. Yet, his was a personal story of living independently, thinking freely, and seeing in Wall Street an icon of freedom and risk taking. The Bull is the symbol of a market driven by pursuit of high reward following high-risk. The boring Bear – the symbol of a market driven by fear of loss and playing it safe in granny T-Bills – is for those “losers” who take few risks and get left behind as a result.

And that’s the real irony behind Charging Bull. It’s bull for many New Yorkers. Wall Street is no place for freedom and it’s sure as shit no place for risk taking – especially under the Bulls.

People from towns much smaller than New York City may resent this comparison. It may seem to them that I’m taking too much for granted, but when you live it, you can’t miss the similarities: Wall Street is small town New York City’s “Mill”. Everyone wants a good job in the Mill. The town lives, breathes and dies by the Mill. And you don’t need to qualify for a union membership in this Mill. You just need to hand your entire life over to the Bulls.

In neighborhoods of all classes from all over New York City, “making it” is first defined by the standards of Wall Street’s Bulls. For the “lucky” members of the working class, a job at the Mill brings the all evasive health insurance and paid sick days (though precious few of the latter). In the middle and upper middle classes, your getting a “good job” at a bank or a securities firm is your mom’s brag on the block, in her building and at the country club. Best of all is that the firm often pays for your higher education; as long as you study what the Bulls want you to study and pursue the kinds of degrees they respect. It’s spoken about as if this was some sort of extraordinarily generous benefit, as if an additional 5,000 to 10,000 a year spent on you was somehow breaking these firms’ budgets. It’s not.

A Wall Street ruled by the Bulls has no tolerance for soaring spirits. It’s a place where dreams get crushed under the relentless peer pressure of seeking ever-increasing amounts of money. To pursue some other means of making a living means you must do without ever-increasing amounts of money for a while and, then, get left behind. It means you’re “losing money” over time by not having spare money to save and invest. All of that risk and resulting “loss” means that those who run with the Bulls will judge you and criticize you wherever you turn. Whatever job you seek, their mentality reigns, even if it’s not in their pasture.

You could have been a “job creator” – starting your own business in some profit opportunity, but the Bulls sneered at your recklessness.  In their quest for untold amounts of wealth, they drove prices up and made it impossible to survive in such conditions without the millions of dollars the Bulls believe you “need” for that sort of thing.   You could have developed numerous new inventions to help improve the lives of others.  You could have contributed time to helping the developing world build small scale infrastructure that would make a world of difference for a small village.   “No way”, say the Bulls. They want ALL your time.  All of it.   If you don’t bring them all of your human resource, you deserve to be homeless.  There’s no inbetween for the Bulls.

Sweet reward – far above that needed to buy anything in the US – is there to surreal potential levels for those in senior management; those who give their lives up to the Bulls. For the hundreds of thousands of peons who don’t make it to those heights, employed by these firms and their revenue satellite businesses (like law firms), this is a prison of comfort and peer judgment. It’s a feudal state in which titles are earned through giving your life to that state by joining the Great Crusade against the “Losers” who are happy earning 100,000 a year or – gasp! – even less. It’s a world in which you are an object of contempt if you don’t possess an Ivy League graduate degree, especially if that’s because you never wanted one.

Don’t ever “risk” that good job at the Mill by leaving it to pursue something else, unless, of course, you’ve made millions of dollars. Then you’ve “earned” the freedom you never had under the Bulls. Don’t ever, ever not cave to the Bulls’ Checklist of what you “must have” to remain in their freedom-loving society.

Risk-loving” Bulls? Bullshit.

The Bulls had been quiet for a few years, but the market has been creeping back up over those same years. The correction that occurred in 2008 was a long time in coming. The constant supply of money from the Fed kept it going for far too long after the tech bubble of the late 90s. Whenever the market comes back, so do the Bulls. There was no point in any artist sculpting and casting a matching Bear for us. By the time the piece would be completed, the bear market would have been long over.

But me? I wish we had a matching giant bronze Bear somewhere. See, I love the times of the Bears. The peer pressure and judgment go down. The sneers turn into commiserating shrugs and smiles. You’re free to not want anything to do with the whole thing. There’s more freedom all around when the Bears are running the Mill. Under the Bears, you can take all of the risks you want and nobody judges you. Instead, you’re cheered on through your risks. They’re acceptable now, because with those risk-averse Bears in charge, everyone takes risks.

Then the market recovers and the Bulls come back and the freedom goes away. The S&P 500 hit over 1400 the other day. The Dow, over 13,000. Both indices are hovering near their levels of the summer of 2008.

Not only will the Bulls be back under these conditions, they’ll be worse than they were before. They’ve accepted an even more cutthroat reality, I’m afraid. Wealth is concentrating at a frenetic pace and they are determined that they will be a part of it. Woe to the individual who decides that there are other priorities in life outside of amassing stupendous wealth. Not only does that individual risk judgment from the Bulls, but he or she now risks living a lower standard of living than they did only ten years ago.

I love DiModica’s bull, because it’s beautiful and because I love its unintended irony. I just wish I could be done with the other Bulls. They demand far too much of my freedom for my tastes.

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