A Symbol of Value

Coined by Kabir Sehgal is an open book that looks at money in dimensions and from approaches hitherto unexplored by mainstream economic thinking.
K. Kanagasabapathy        Print Edition: July 5, 2015

Coined: The Rich Life of Money and How Its History Has Shaped Us
By Kabir Sehgal
Pages: 317
Price: Rs 499
John Murray (Publisher)

Kabir Sehgal, a New York Times bestselling author, is a multifaceted personality. On his official website, he proclaims himself to be an eduTech Entrepreneur who is passionate about changing abstract ideas into reality so that he could impact the lives of everyone in a positive way. His new book, Coined, has amply demonstrated this, though occasionally one feels that he is also moving from reality to abstraction for good. Carrying a title that is conventional, the exploration of the subject is anything but conventional.

As an investment banker confronting the 2008 financial crisis, Sehgal was inspired to intensely research about 'money'. The end result is an intricately woven story about money, looking at it in dimensions and from approaches hitherto unexplored by mainstream economic thinking. Sehgal is humble in claiming the book is not original, but his significant contribution lies in synthesising and widely quoting material from a variety of fields encompassing history, anthropology, biology, religious texts, his own personal interviews and visits across continents, and ultimately linking them into the evolution of money, credit and finance from prehistoric times to the modern globalised world and looking forward... to the interstellar universe.

The book is divided into three parts - Mind: The Roots of an Idea, Body: The Material Forms of Money and Soul: Symbol of Values. Starting from the premise that money, defined in traditional way as a unit of account, medium of exchange and store of value, does not capture its other dimensions, he ventures to define money as a symbol of value. In Mind, he ventures to answer why people use money from perspectives of biology, psychology and anthropology. There is a fascinating analysis in Chapter 2 of psychology and neuroscience of financial decision making. It raises doubts and brings out the obvious failure of economic models and forecasting exercises rooted in the conventional assumptions of rational decision making and self- correcting nature of financial markets.

Body is a description of what different forms of money are, surveying briefly the history of hard money and later the soft money or paper currency standards in two different chapters. There is an interesting discussion on the evolution of central banking and its control over money. Chapter 6 speculates about the future of money in three possible scenarios, a bear case or a pessimistic case of economic deterioration, a bull case of optimistic economic expansion and a dream case of distinction between man and machine getting blurred.

Soul is out of the world and belongs to the realms of religion and spirituality. How religions such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism view money? There is surprisingly a common thread with some degree of variation among all religions that money is some form of an evil that distances the soul from God. The dividing line between the materialistic and spiritual view of money is that while the former is rooted in the belief that more is better, the latter is a reflection of conviction that less is more and nothing is everything. The last chapter on the art of money explores how illustrations and symbols in coins and other forms of money are reflective of national cultures and history.

Overall, Coined is an open book as it does not advocate any theory nor it preach anything as right or wrong. It is to each according to their perception and absorption. But it is a stimulating read for all enthusiastic non-fiction readers.

(The reviewer is former director, EPW Research Foundation , and former adviser, RBI)

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