Back in 2004, New Yorker writer Burkhard Bilger reported on the incredible shrinking American. “Americans haven’t grown taller in fifty years,” Bilger wrote. “By now, even the Japanese — once the shortest industrialized people on earth — have nearly caught up with us, and Northern Europeans are three inches taller and rising.”
As Bilger pointed out, “Most historians, if they thought about height at all, tended to assume that it was tied to income. The more people earn, the better they eat; the better they eat, the taller they grow.” But we’re the richest country on the planet, and we’re turning into shrimps.
Our height, the Associated Press reported recently, isn’t just a sign of wealth but of how well we, as a nation, take care of ourselves. The verdict? With our diets and our fractured health-care system, we’re terrible at tending to ourselves.
Both Bilger and Matt Crenson, the AP reporter, discuss studies showing that taller people do better in life than shorter people. From Bilger:
Tall men, a series of studies has shown, benefit from a significant bias. They get married sooner, get promoted quicker, and earn higher wages. According to one recent study, the average six-foot worker earns a hundred and sixty-six thousand dollars more, over a thirty-year period, than his five-foot-five-inch counterpart — about eight hundred dollars more per inch per year.
And from Crenson:
Tall people tend to be healthier and wealthier and live longer than short people. Some researchers have even suggested that tall people are more intelligent.
It’s not that being tall actually makes people smarter, richer or healthier. It’s that the same things that make people tall — a nutritious diet, good prenatal care and a healthy childhood — also benefit them in those other ways.
That makes height a good indicator for economists who are interested in measuring how well a nation provides for its citizens during their prime growing years. With one simple, easily collected statistic, economists can essentially measure how well a society prepares its children for life.
Bilger agrees: “Height . . . is a kind of biological shorthand: a composite code for all the factors that make up a society’s well-being. . . . If Joe is taller than Jack, it’s probably because his parents are taller. But if the average Norwegian is taller than the average Nigerian it’s because Norwegians live healthier lives.”
John Komlos, an economic historian at the University of Munich profiled by both Bilger and Crenson, recently published the results of a height study that lays the blame for the shrinking American populace at the feet of both diet and health care:
“American children might consume more meals prepared outside of the home, more fast food rich in fat, high in energy density and low in essential micronutrients,” wrote Komlos and co-author Benjamin Lauderdale of Princeton University. “Furthermore, the European welfare states provide a more comprehensive social safety net including universal health-care coverage.”
As Bilger wrote, “In our height lies the tale of our birth and upbringing, of our social class, daily diet, and health-care coverage. In our height lies our history.”
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