Yesterday, an epochal day in American history, 146 years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation proclamation, as Barack Obama was being sworn in as the first African-American president of the United States, a persistent schizophrenia of the American soul was laid bare.
As the president-elect placed his hand on the Lincoln inaugural bible, and hundreds of millions of Americans and many more around the world were struck with hope and wonder, nameless fund managers and anonymous shareholders were calling their brokers and shouting "sell!" As the president gave his campaign cry of "yes we can!" the reality of an exuberant walk up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, cynical men and women eyeing their assets with that very greed the new President had condemned in his inaugural speech were whining "no we can't."
As the country rose to heights the most hopeful could scarcely imagine, these cynics were pushing the stock market down to new depths -- more than 300 points down, below 8000. This knee-jerk vote of non-confidence in the economy in the face of the most impressive vote of confidence in democracy the country has ever seen reveals a dangerous schism. It sets how we think as investors against how we act as citizens. It makes Wall Street more important than Constitution Avenue.
President Obama's historical mentor, Abraham Lincoln, famously said a house divided cannot stand. President Obama seems to be a true uniter, but the inner schizophrenia that divides the public citizen in each of us from the private consumer continues to allow our narcissist's pessimism to trump our civic optimism.
If America's investors lift their eyes from their virtual ticker tapes long enough to notice that America is transforming itself, maybe they can give the economy a chance to recover. If not, they will learn that schizophrenia is a form of madness in which demons drive out angels, and they will risk defeating the new President before he can even get started.
Wake up fund-managers, share-holders, bankers, investors and consumers (that's more or less all of us): the words My Country T'is of Thee sung so magnificently by Aretha Franklin apply to you too. To all of us.
Follow Benjamin R. Barber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BenjaminRBarber