WHAT IS it about money that makes the world go round? Chasing the riddle, humans have landed on the edge of woods, built civilisations, gone to the brink of war and hit the precipice of insanity. The questers have come in all hues and colours: white, black, brown. They have put on all sorts of attires—loin cloths, designer suits, plain pants and shirts. And they have represented all classes: the rich and the poor, the believer and the atheist, the wise and the dumb. Last heard, an investment banker had traversed 7,00,000 miles, observed exchanges between organisms on the Galapagos islands and talked to the destitute in Kolkata in an effort to decode the spell of money!
Kabir Sehgal, a vice-president at JP Morgan in New York, is among the latest to have been smitten by what John Maynard Keynes would call ‘Babylonian madness’—a term the legendary economist used to describe the state of absolute frenzy he got into while studying money. Whether or not such a cryptic endeavour satiates his appetite, Sehgal’s efforts have taken the shape of a book, titled Coined: The Rich Life of Money and How Its History Has Shaped Us. “What is it about money that we can’t master?” he asks. It’s this obsession for understanding money, and not making it, which is at the core of this book.
“Money is like a musical note. In one note, there are more notes vibrating at other frequencies; we just can’t hear them. Similarly, there is more to money than there may first appear. Take, for instance, $2,500. It means something different if it’s booked as revenue, income, taxes, plunder, bribes, earmarks, or an honorarium—even though it’s the same amount,” Sehgal writes.
The idea of venturing into the relatively less charted territory of money came to Sehgal as an accident. When he set out to study the financial crisis of 2008, he started reading historical works only to learn busts are as much part of the financial systems as booms—right from the Tulip mania in the Netherlands in the 1630s to the dot-com crash at the turn of the current century. The more he studied, the more he was attracted towards the uncanny force money has on the human mind and behaviour. So from historical works, behavioural economics to neuro economics, Sehgal’s quest for an answer to the riddle around money cut across many disciplines and crossed many paths.
The immediate consequence was that he dropped the idea of writing on the meltdown, realising such an endeavour “belies the full range of what money means to us” and the “world didn’t need another book on the 2008 financial crisis”. Instead, he chose to write about the biology of exchange, the psychology of money and the anthropology of debt, using the research he put into the study of money and the information he rustled up during his trips to various countries. He also takes us on a journey through the past, as well as the future of money and even apprises us of the take of various religions on money through distinct chapters in the book.
In each of the chapters, he introduces the reader to the other side of an argument, wherever feasible, and resists the temptation of offering too many personal opinions. Take the case of the origin of money. The theory of the origin of money, as encapsulated in normal academic discourse, goes somewhat like this: once upon a time, in a land far away, people bartered commodities, but sometimes each person didn’t have the goods the other wanted, so they invented money to solve the issue. Such a thought, Sehgal says, can be traced back to Aristotle and classical economists like Adam Smith. But the simple theory gets a twist when the author invokes a dilemma along the lines of the still-intriguing question of whether the chicken predated the egg or vice-versa. So what came first: money or debt? While a classical economist like Smith would say money, others like economists Alfred Mitchell-Innes and L Randall Wray seem to suggest it’s debt.
A smart investment banker, Sehgal seeks to keep the reader’s expectations modest and hedges the risk of proving unequal to the enormous task, which has been handled by more lofty individuals down the centuries. He sets the tone right in his introduction when he says: “The book doesn’t advance a grand theory, nor does it provide completely unique perspectives. It synthesizes the work of others…” And he means it.
However, to be fair to the author, he manages to mingle personal anecdotes with at-times drab academic discourse to keep the reader on the subject. Shuttling through the pages, the sincerity in his presentation, without sounding pompous or trying to be a preacher, is perceptible. Lucid diction and a simple narrative style make this book easy to grasp even for those disinterested in complex academic pursuits.
But after so much research, does he unearth the secret behind the enormous power of money? No. And Sehgal is conscious of it when he says: “…every chapter is meant to spark your curiosity, not satisfy it.” This is the foremost strength, as well as the weakness of the book.
However, the author’s attempt to personify money through the subtitle, The Rich Life of Money and How Its History Has Shaped Us, is interesting.
Just like humans, money lives. It breathes. It talks. It sings. It dances. It laughs. And most importantly, it still does make the world go round, no matter what. If God has a real competition on earth, it’s money, honey. And this is one inexplicable truth that Sehgal’s book never refutes.