A Wall Street Giant Makes a $75 Million Bet on Academic Philosophy
Posted January 16, 2018 6:06 p.m. EST
The quants and their algorithms may have taken over Wall Street. But one investment legend is making a big bet on a more old-fashioned mode of analysis: philosophy.
Bill Miller, the value investor who famously beat the Standard & Poor’s 500 index for 15 consecutive years (and whose faith in bank stocks later won a mocking depiction in the movie “The Big Short”), has donated $75 million to the philosophy department of Johns Hopkins University.
The gift, formally announced Tuesday, appears to the largest by far to a philosophy department anywhere in the world, the university said. It will allow the department, which will be renamed for Miller, to nearly double in size, to 22 full-time faculty members, while also supporting graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and new courses aimed at attracting undergraduates.
While a number of billionaires and business titans have created splashy million-dollar philosophy prizes, Miller — a former doctoral student in philosophy at Johns Hopkins — said he was pleased to be making an investment in the infrastructure of the profession.
“I wanted the gift to go to something where it would have a significant impact, and change the trajectory,” Miller, whose firm, Miller Value Partners, is based in Baltimore, said in a telephone interview.
Philosophy, he added, “has made a huge difference both to my life outside business, in terms of adding a great degree of richness and knowledge, and to the actual decisions I’ve made in investing.”
Miller’s gift may seem modest compared with the $1.5 billion that Michael Bloomberg has given to Johns Hopkins over his lifetime, including a $300 million gift to its School of Public Health in 2016.
But Ronald Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins, said Miller’s gift would give a much-needed boost to the beleaguered humanities, at a moment when many universities, and the governments that support them, are heavily focused on the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math.
“This gift is so wonderfully contrarian,” Daniels said. “To have someone of Bill’s stature who is willing to lend an imprimatur to philosophy, this most ancient of disciplines, and to the idea of its continuing relevance as an end in itself, is simply spectacular.”
Miller, 67, is not the only old-guard Wall Street figure with a background in philosophy. George Soros was heavily influenced by the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper. Carl Icahn was a philosophy major at Princeton, where he wrote a senior thesis titled “The Problem of Formulating an Adequate Explication of the Empiricist Criterion of Meaning.” (On the watchdog side of the street, Sheila Bair, the former chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., was also a philosophy major.) Miller, whose father worked as a terminal manager for a trucking company, said he had essentially talked his way into the doctoral program at Hopkins, despite having taken only one six-week course in philosophy at the very end of his senior year.
“They wanted to see three examples of your philosophical work,” he recalled. “I didn’t have any, so I took 30 days off the Army and wrote three papers.”
Miller, who worked part-time in accounting during graduate school, completed the coursework and qualifying exams. But when it came time to start a dissertation, he looked at the difficult prospects of getting a teaching job, and left for (much) greener pastures.
Philosophy is often derided as useless and impractical, and not always in as fond a way as in the classic Monty Python sketch “Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion Visit Jean-Paul Sartre.” But when Marco Rubio, on the campaign trail in 2015, said the U.S. needed “more welders and less philosophers,” defenders of Sophia rushed to note that postsecondary philosophy teachers earned nearly twice as much as welders, while former philosophy majors out-earned most other liberal arts majors by midcareer.
On Wall Street, Miller, an old-fashioned stock picker who focused on identifying undervalued companies, is famous for his 15-year streak beating the S&P 500, from 1991 to 2006, while at Legg Mason, where he spent most of his career. He was an early believer in Amazon, investing heavily at a time when most analysts were highly skeptical.
“There was a huge amount of confirmation bias going on with Amazon,” he said. “There was an inability to do what Wittgenstein talked about in his ‘Philosophical Investigations’: crisscrossing the landscape from many angles, investigating in many different ways.”
The more general public may recall his brief depiction in “The Big Short,” where he was the guy blustering on about the fundamental strength of Bear Stearns stock (which in real life Miller rode toward the bottom) in a public debate with Steve Carell’s character even as it was shown plummeting on BlackBerry screens.
The scene, based on a real exchange, “made the person seem quite a bit more pompous than I think of myself as being,” Miller said. In recent years Miller, who said his firm currently has $2.5 billion under management (considerably less than the funds he oversaw at Legg Mason, with which he ended ties in 2016), has invested heavily in Bitcoin.
The cryptocurrency has inspired a nascent philosophical literature, to complement more in-flight friendly reading like Bitcoin Magazine. In addition to books on the history and sociology of money, Miller said he had been reading Berkeley philosopher John Searle’s 1995 book “The Construction of Social Reality,” which looks at how objective social realities form, grow and change.
“It is particularly insightful when trying to understand new social facts and structures such as crypto assets,” Miller said.