americans are no longer the tallest -- 4/29/16

Today's selection -- from American Amnesia Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson. Americans are no longer the tallest people in the world:

"For much of US history, Americans were the tallest people in the world by a large margin. When the thirteen colonies that occupied the Atlantic seaboard broke from the British Empire, adult American men were on average three inches taller than their counterparts in England, and they were almost that much taller than men in the Netherlands, the great economic power before Britain. Revolutionary soldiers looked up to General George Washington, but not, as often assumed, because he was a giant among Lilliputians. David McCullough, in his popular biogra­phy of John Adams, describes Washington as 'nearly a head taller than Adams -- six feet four in his boots, taller than almost anyone of the day.' Those must have been some boots, for Washington was six feet two. At five foot seven, Adams was just an inch below the average for American soldiers and significantly taller than a typical European soldier. Americans were tall because Americans were healthy. 'Poor as they were,' notes the colonial historian William Polk, 'Americans ate and were housed better than Englishmen.' Sickness and premature death were common, of course, especially outside the privileged circle of white men. Still, European visitors like Tocqueville marveled at the fertility of the land and the robustness of its settlers, the relative equality of male citi­zens and the strong civic bonds among them. J. Hector St. John de Creve­coeur wrote in 1782 of the American settler in Letters from an American Farmer, 'Instead of starving he will be fed, instead of being idle he will have employment, and there are riches enough for such men as come over here.'

"The cause of the American height advantage could not have been income alone. According to most sources, the average resident of the Netherlands or England was richer than colonial Americans but also substantially shorter. Indeed, as the United States matched and then surpassed Europe economically in the nineteenth century, the average height of American men actually fell, recovering back to colonial levels only around the dawn of the twentieth century. These ebbs and flows, which played out in other industrializing nations as well, are a reminder that economic growth and population health are not one and the same. (We shall unravel the mystery of their interdependence in the next chap­ter.) Nonetheless, Americans remained far and away the tallest people in the world throughout the nineteenth century, and average American heights rose quickly in the early decades of the twentieth. When the United States entered World War II, young American men averaged five feet nine inches-almost two inches taller, on average, than the young Germans they were fighting.

"While people know that height is a strong predictor of individual achievement (test scores, occupational prestige, pay), it is also a reveal­ing marker of population health. Height has a lot to do with genes, but height differences across nations seem to be caused mostly by social con­ditions, such as income, nutrition, health coverage, and social cohesion. Indeed, one reason for the correlation between height and achievement is that kids whose mothers are healthy during pregnancy and who grow up with sufficient food, medical care, and family support tend to be taller adults. An average US white girl born in the early 1910s could expect to reach around five foot three; an average US white girl born in the late 1950s could expect to exceed five foot five.

"Evolution just doesn't hap­pen that fast. So it's striking that Americans are no longer the tallest people in the world. Not even close: Once three inches taller than residents of the Old World, on average, Americans are now about three inches shorter. The average Dutch height for men is six foot one, and for women, five foot eight -- versus five foot nine for American men and five foot five for American women. The gap is not, as might be supposed, a result of immigration: White, native-born Americans who speak English at home are significantly smaller, too, and immigration isn't substantial enough to explain the discrepancy in any case. Nor can the growing gap be explained by differences in how height is measured. Though some coun­tries rely on self-reported heights for their statistics -- and, yes, men tend to 'round up' -- Americans look shorter even when the only countries in the rankings are those that, like the United States, measure heights directly.

"Americans are not shrinking. (Overall, that is -- there is some evi­dence that both white and black women born after 1960 are shorter than their parents.) But the increase in Americans' average stature has been glacial, even as heights continue to rise steadily abroad. To really see our lost height advantage, you have to break the population into age groups, or what demographers call birth cohorts. People in their twenties, after all, are as tall as they will ever be. Changes in average height come from changes in the height of the young (and deaths among older cohorts). And, indeed, the adult heights of those born during a given period pro­vide a powerful image of the living conditions experienced by infants and adolescents at the time. The fall in average heights among those born in the mid-1800s, for example, signaled the costs as well as benefits of the country's industrial and urban shift, which brought increased infec­tious disease as well as higher incomes, harsher lives for the masses as well as better lives for the elite. (The privileged American men who applied for passports in 1890 were, on average, more than an inch and a half taller than army recruits at the time.)

"In general, heights are converging among affluent nations, and the biggest gains have occurred in countries admitted most recently to the rich-nation club. Within countries, younger age groups are generally much taller than older age groups -- which makes sense: Older people spent their growing years (including their growth within the womb) in poorer societies with more limited health technology and knowledge. But the United States is a conspicuous exception to these patterns: Aver­age heights have barely budged in recent decades, so young Americans again, even when leaving out recent immigrants -- are barely taller than their parents. Older Americans are roughly on par with their counter­parts abroad; younger Americans are substantially shorter. The United States is the richest populous nation in the world. Nevertheless, its young are roughly as tall as the young in Portugal, which has a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) less than half ours.

"Because height is a powerful indicator of social and individual health, America's relative decline should ring alarms. Our young are coming up short -- relative not just to gains in stature of the past but also to gains in stature in other rich nations.

"Still, if shorter kids were the only sign of trouble, we might safely ignore the alarms. For all but aspiring basketball players, tallness is not an end in itself. It can even create problems: The Dutch have had to re­write their building codes so men don't routinely smash their heads into door frames."


Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson


American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper


Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2016 by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson Pages 23-26


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