A Brief History of Money
By Bibek Debroy | Published: 02nd May 2015 10:00 PM |
The author of Coined, Kabir Sehgal, is Vice President with J.P. Morgan in New York, and has written four books earlier. His latest book is packed with information. I was reminded of John Kenneth Galbraith’s 1975, Money: Whence It Came, Where It Went. However, Kabir Sehgal is no Galbraith. And money has been written about for ages.
In eight chapters (barring an introduction), we have documentation of some new research– evolution and microbiology (Chapter 1), behavioural economics and neuro-economics (Chapter 2), history of interest rates and debt (Chapter 3), history of coinage, archaeology (Chapter 4), history of fiat money (Chapter 5), digital currency (Chapter 6), angel investments (Chapter 7) and numismatics (Chapter 8). This simplifies the contents of the chapters a bit, but you get the general idea.
While each chapter has some nuggets of information, the interesting bits are in Chapters 1 and 2. But despite that deluge of information, the book doesn’t grip you and this has to do with the style of writing. That’s the reason I mentioned Galbraith. Several years down the line, Galbraith is still fun to read.
Galbraith was a master storyteller. Kabir Sehgal is an accumulator and aggregator of facts and there is a difference between the two. Consider the opening lines of the book, from the introduction. “Red light. Jakarta. Running late. An emaciated barefoot beggar paces in front of my taxi while carrying a baby in her arms. We make eye contact. I look away. In the other direction, I see several more beggars standing in line, index fingers raised.” Frankly, this put me off. Something like Galbraith’s was a gripping book, you could read it in one sitting, from start to end. Something like Kabir Sehgal’s book is like surfing the Internet, at random. You can pick up Coined and start reading wherever and whenever.
Nor is this “research”, the way the term is commonly used. This isn’t D.D. Kosambi and his work on numismatics, measuring marks on coins and thereby deducing velocity of circulation of money in the Gupta and post-Gupta period.
If one leaves aside the “research”, even on so-called “case studies”, I was reminded of a paper by R.A. Radford that once (1945, published in Economica) became a classic. The paper was titled “Economic Organization of a P.O.W Camp” and talked about how cigarettes performed the role of money in such a POW camp. Why did that paper become a classic and why was it quoted so often? Part of the answer is that the subject was unusual, topical (then) and new. But part of the answer also was that the paper was engagingly written.
I do realize Kabir Sehgal is a noted columnist and that this book has been listed as a top business book for 2015 and is also a bestseller.
I also do know he has written several books in the past, including for children. The blurb at the back says, “In Coined, Kabir Sehgal travels the world while presenting a multi-dimensional portrait of currency through the ages. He explores the origin of exchange in the Galapagos Islands and learns about the art that appears on money from coin collectors in Vietnam. He takes us from the vaults beneath the Federal Reserve in New York to a beehive where pollen can be understood as a natural form of exchange…The story of money is rich and varied because it is our story.” True, and nothing that the blurb says is untrue. The book has all of that and more. It is just that I don’t think it has been written particularly well, despite it doing well in the market.