Paul Krugman guilt trips America's working moms:
Traveling through Europe recently, I’ve been able to confirm through personal experience what statistical surveys tell us: the perceived stature of Americans is not what it was. Europeans used to look up to us; now, many of them look down on us instead.
No, I’m not talking metaphorically about our loss of moral authority in the wake of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. I’m literally talking about feet and inches.
To the casual observer, Europeans — who often seemed short, even to me (I’m 5-foot-7), when I first began traveling a lot in the 1970s — now often seem tall by American standards. And that casual observation matches what careful researchers have found.
The data show that Americans, who in the words of a recent paper by the economic historian John Komlos and Benjamin Lauderdale in Social Science Quarterly, were “tallest in the world between colonial times and the middle of the 20th century,” have now “become shorter (and fatter) than Western and Northern Europeans. In fact, the U.S. population is currently at the bottom end of the height distribution in advanced industrial countries.”
This is not a trivial matter. As the paper says, “height is indicative of how well the human organism thrives in its socioeconomic environment.” There’s a whole discipline of “anthropometric history” that uses evidence on heights to assess changes in social conditions.
There is normally a strong association between per capita income and a country’s average height. By that standard, Americans should be taller than Europeans: U.S. per capita G.D.P. is higher than that of any other major economy. But since the middle of the 20th century, something has caused Americans to grow richer without growing significantly taller.
It’s not the population’s changing ethnic mix due to immigration: the stagnation of American heights is clear even if you restrict the comparison to non-Hispanic, native-born whites.
And although the Komlos-Lauderdale paper suggests that growing income and social inequality in America might be one culprit, the remarkable thing is that, as the authors themselves point out, even high-status Americans are falling short: “rich Americans are shorter than rich Western Europeans and poor white Americans are shorter than poor Western Europeans.”
We seem to be left with two main possible explanations of the height gap.
One is that America really has turned into “Fast Food Nation.”
“U.S. children,” write Mr. Komlos and Mr. Lauderdale, “consume more meals prepared outside the home, more fast food rich in fat, high in energy density and low in essential micronutrients, than do European children.” Our reliance on fast food, in turn, may reflect lack of family time because we work too much: U.S. G.D.P. per capita is high partly because employed Americans work many more hours than their European counterparts.
A broader explanation would be that contemporary America is a society that, in a variety of ways, doesn’t take very good care of its children. Recently, Unicef issued a report comparing a number of measures of child well-being in 21 rich countries, including health and safety, family and peer relationships and such things as whether children eat fruit and are physically active. The report put the Netherlands at the top; sure enough, the Dutch are now the world’s tallest people, almost 3 inches taller, on average, than non-Hispanic American whites. The U.S. ended up in 20th place, below Poland, Portugal and Hungary, but ahead of Britain.
Whatever the full explanation for America’s stature deficit, our relative shortness, like our low life expectancy, suggests that something is amiss with our way of life. A critical European might say that America is a land of harried parents and neglected children, of expensive health care that misses those who need it most, a society that for all its wealth somehow manages to be nasty, brutish — and short.
OK, props for the closing line. However, without actually rallying myself to track down the paper in question I can think of two problems and an alternative explanation.
Problems first - what's the baseline? Europe was racked by two world wars in the last century, both of which created near-famine conditions. Presumably, this caused Euro-heights to lag that of Americans, an effect that probably skews data until we get to Europeans born after, say, 1955. In other words, when Paul Krugman saw eye-to-eye with Europeans in the early 1970's, he was looking at a lot of war-deprived shorties.
However, regardless of the absolute wealth of Europe versus the United States, from about 1955 onwards (or, in terms of measuring adults, form about 1975 onwards), one would expect Europe to increase more quickly than the US, simply because they are moving up from a war-depressed baseline.
Second problem - what is the ethnic mix of Europe relative to the United States? I would hazard a guess that healthy, well-fed Swedes are taller than healthy, well-fed Irish or Italians. The United States has descendants from all three countries, but I would hardly be surprised to learn that Sweden has surpassed the US in height. But are the Irish in Ireland taller than their US counterparts? Are the Scandinavians in this country lagging the Scandinavians who stayed behind? Who knows?
And an alternative explanation - rather than blaming America's work ethic, let's idly speculate that the cause is the general European welfare state. Here we go - imagine Subsidy Society where hard work is heavily taxed and unemployment is heavily subsidized. Women will have a reduced incentive to assess prospective breeding partners in terms of their earning potential and will be more able to afford picking a mate on the basis of other qualities, such as charm, good looks, or (dare we say it?) height. In such a society, the height of the population would drift upwards due to selective breeding. In fact, we might look to the day when such a society was predominantly populated by tall, handsome, charming lay-abouts who looked as good pouring a glass of wine as they did cashing an unemployment check. Some day!
Now picture a second society in which hard work can result in economic success regardless of a person's charm or physical stature. In such a society shorter men will be more likely than their counterparts in Subsidy Society to emerge as economically attractive mates and the evolving height of the population may be flat, as it were.
C'mon - we all know that in Old Europe, the diminutive Prof. Krugman would have become one more angry old man smoking cigarettes on the (Far) Left Bank, watching the pretty girls go by on the arms of taller men. In Enterprising America he made a Somebody of himself and was able to score a hot chick (but we have no word on whether he has been blessed with the pitter-patter of little Krugmans, so we will hold off on wishing him a Happy Father's Day.)
Well, its a theory, although I can't guess how to test it - survey the heights of the fathers of newborns relative to the general population of the same age and check for trans-Atlantic differences? Good luck finding data.
Things To Do - track down the study in question; dig up a link to some photos of Krugman and Spouse that circulated a few years ago to general acclaim; ruminate that Bush II is shorter than his dad; and wonder why I am the same height as my dad even though I grew up in a wealthier household and nation (post-war America versus Depression America.)
Quite a Friday ahead of me.
MORE: If folks can't take any more of height-ism, I would love to reflect on streaks and hot hands in baseball. I see their is a blog devoted to the general topic; my interest is sparked by the impending collision of the unstoppable force with the utterly movable object.
BREAKTHROUGH STUFF: If Europeans look taller to Krugman today, it may simply be that he is stooped from carrying the weight of the world on his shoulder lo these many years.