Phenomenological Psychology

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What Is the Cost of Philosophy in the United States?

December 1st, 2007 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

I started thinking about this as an abstract exercise, kind of like wondering how much battery power there is on tap (see a previous post). By “cost” I mean, “direct economic cost” – not “cost” as in, “Socrates cost Athens a lot by inflaming its youth.” The major component of this cost is supporting philosophy professors at academic and educational institutions. There may be some other costs, such as: infrastructure support (department offices); library; computers; etc. However, these most likely will be administered by, or charged to, other cost centers. Unlike corporate America, colleges and universities don’t assess “notional rent” to their various departments, and libraries most likely are branches of a central library system. So philosophy professor nose-count (in the Frege sense) and philosophy professor salaries are the main issues.

The most reliable source of statistics is the American Philosophical Ass’n (“APA”), which avers it has over 10,000 members. Nobody would become a member of something like the APA unless they taught philosophy, so I decided to adopt this as a rough proxy for philosopher employment. Another source is the Directory of American Philosophers, available at www.pdcnet.org. Now in its 23rd edition, the Directory identifies over 13,000 philosophers, most of whom probably are associated with various schools (as in, places to teach, not “schools of thought”).

A survey of 1,400 institutions conducted by the APA for the year 2004 – 2005 (available at www.apa.udel.edu/apa/) showed that average philosophy professor compensation was $87,112. Like every statistical mean, this is subject to a number of caveats, including the type of school (public or private), the rank of the professor (junior or senior), etc. Also, the spread will be different for each institution (compared to the entire population), further skewing results. Like with any good corporate pro forma, we should gross this number up by 35% for indirect costs, benefits, pension plans, T&E, etc. to arrive at total average compensation of $117,601. Which, when multiplied by 10,000 head-count yields total U.S. philosophy professor compensation of $1.18 billion/year.

By way of comparison, Americans eat approx. $2.1 billion worth of French fries each year, Geresema, E., “Potato growers fret as more say no to French fries,” Chicago Sun-Times (Sep’t 28, 2003). Philosophy therefore costs us about six months’ worth. Which would be better – philosophy for a year, or no French fries for six months? “Titanic” (1997), “The Lord of the Rings – the Return of the King” (2003) and “Pirates of the Caribbean – Dead Man’s Chest” (2006) each grossed over $1 billion world-wide. Perhaps we could have foregone any one of them, for a year’s worth of philosophizing. The Iraq war started on March 19, 2003 and since then has cost $473.3 billion, www.costofwar.com (which has a calculator that zips by with the current total at a rather alarming rate). This yields a daily cost of approx. $27.6 million. So, if we canceled the war for 36 – 37 days, we could get a year’s worth of philosophy out of it.

Curiously, the number of domestic (domesticated?) philosophers bears a startling similarity to the number of screenwriters there are in Hollywood, at least according to the Writer’s Guild. Some newspaper accounts say 10,000, some say 12,000; the Writer’s Guild itself says 7,313 (which also may be a more accurate count of philosophy professors, once the strays are culled from the herd).

During 2005, writers earned $910 million – not too far off from the cost of having all of the philosophy professors. It transpires that writers’ earnings are extremely heterogeneous – surely far more so than those of philosophers. To begin with, only 4,437 of the writers worked at all during 2005 (all stats are from the WGA’s 2006 annual report, available at its website www.wga.org). This means they earned zero. Writers at the 95th percentile (of those who earned anything) earned over $685,380; those at the 75th, $248,769; those at the 50th, $106,756; and those at the 25th, $38,740.

The writers presently are on strike versus the Hollywood Studios for higher pay and residuals compensation, for the use of their work when it is re-purposed into different formats, such as use on the Internet. One of the more hilarious aspects of the writers’ strike is how they successfully have co-opted the semiotics of the organized labor movement. “Not too much of a difference between us writers and all of you ordinary working folk,” they seem to say. As they sip their lattes and order take-out from expensive LA restaurants. The economic characteristics of being a philosophy professor are more like those of being a longshoreperson than being a Hollywood screenwriter. Which makes you wonder, what would happen if all of the philosophy professors in the U.S. decided to go on strike? Would they get the same amount of publicity as the writers? Who would notice – or, for that matter, care?