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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Coming Up Short

People in other countries used to look up to Americans, but that is changing:

Economist traces height trends, by Tom Hundley, Chicago Tribune: When John Komlos wants to take the measure of a nation's economic well-being, he doesn't check its gross domestic product or consumer price index. He ignores ... unemployment figures. Instead, Komlos takes a look at how tall its people have grown.

"Height is a very good overall indicator of how well the human organism thrives in its socioeconomic environment," he explained.

Komlos, a professor in the economics department at the University of Munich, Germany, has dedicated his professional life to the study of anthropometric history—his own coinage for the academic field that studies the links between a population's height and general well-being.

What Komlos has learned is that Americans, despite their nation's prosperity, abundance of food and cutting-edge medical technology, stopped getting taller in the 1950s and have now been passed by their European cousins.

"Americans were head and shoulders above Europeans in the 18th Century, and it stayed that way for two centuries," he said. "Now it's the other way around."

This, according to Komlos, suggests that Europeans eat better, have better access to health care and enjoy a more equitable distribution of national wealth. They will almost certainly live longer than their American counterparts. ...

Genetics determines an individual's height—whether a person is shorter or taller than the national norm—but external factors determine a population's height.

While the media quickly latched onto the height rankings, Komlos and other economists were more interested in the external factors that were causing the startling disparity between American and European growth rates.

In the 2004 paper, Komlos fingered two likely suspects: the growing gap between rich and poor in the U.S., and its lack of universal health care.

Although the U.S. has been the dominant economic power since the end of World War II, its wealth has not been very evenly distributed. According to standard measures, countries such as the Netherlands and the Scandinavian nations are at the top of the list; the U.S. ranks near the bottom, tied with Ghana and Turkmenistan, according to UN figures.

When income is distributed more evenly, it follows that access to health care also is evenly and equitably distributed, Komlos said.

He noted that a high number of Americans are without health insurance (a U.S. Census Bureau report put the figure at 47 million for 2006), meaning that millions of American children do not get top-notch medical care during the critical growth years. Meanwhile, the "tall" countries of the world have been providing their citizens with cradle-to-grave health care for generations.

Komlos does not claim that his research has established a causal link between a nation's height and its health care delivery system, only that "height is a pretty good indicator of how well a society treats its children and young people."

Komlos is struck by two things when he visits the U.S.: the alarming proportion of the population that is overweight, and the shortfall in height—especially among females.

Could America's diminished stature have something to do with its expanding girth?

Very likely, Komlos said. "The tremendous amount of fast food consumed by Americans ... has to have an impact," he said. ...

The latest national height data contains some good news and some bad, Komlos said.

The good news is that there are indications that Americans may have started to grow again. The bad news is that this growth trend appears to be bypassing black females. "This is an uncomfortable finding, especially at a time when Europeans and other developed countries are not only catching up but exceeding us," Komlos said.

Here's Paul Krugman on the same topic. He says:

We seem to be left with two main possible explanations... One is that America really has turned into 'Fast Food Nation.'

A broader explanation would be that contemporary America ... doesn’t take very good care of its children. ... Whatever the full explanation..., 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.

Update: Eric at Edge of the American West has a brief follow-up on whether this is due to immigration (it's not). Free Exchange weighs in here.

    Posted by on Thursday, May 29, 2008 at 02:34 AM in Economics, Health Care, Income Distribution, Social Insurance | Permalink  TrackBack (1)  Comments (53)


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