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Friday, June 15, 2007

Paul Krugman: America Comes Up Short

Paul Krugman wonders why Americans are losing stature:

America Comes Up Short, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: 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. ...

Americans, who in the words of a recent paper by the economic historian John Komlos and Benjamin Lauderdale ..., 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...”

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.

For example, nothing demonstrates the harsh class distinctions of Britain in the age of Dickens better than the 9-inch height gap between 15-year-old students at Sandhurst, the elite military academy, and their counterparts at the working-class Marine School. The dismal ... conditions of urban Americans during the Gilded Age were reflected in a 1- 1/2 inch decline in the average height of men born in 1890, compared with those born in 1830. Americans born after 1920 were the first industrial generation to regain preindustrial stature. ...

There is normally a strong association between per capita income and ... average height. By that standard, Americans should be taller than Europeans:... But ... something has caused Americans to grow richer without growing significantly taller.

It’s not the population’s changing ethnic mix...: the stagnation ... is clear even ...[for] native-born whites.

And although ... growing income and social inequality in America might be one culprit, the remarkable thing is that ... even high-status Americans are falling short...

We seem to be left with two main possible explanations... 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 ... 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... The report put the Netherlands at the top; sure enough, the Dutch are now the world’s tallest people, almost 3 inches taller ... 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.

Previous (6/11) column: Paul Krugman: Authentic? Never Mind
Next (6/29) column: Paul Krugman: The Murdoch Factor

    Posted by on Friday, June 15, 2007 at 12:15 AM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (128)


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