Arnold Kling  

The Height of Brave Interpretation

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Paul Krugman gets excited over research by John Komlos and Benjamin E. Lauderdale. They write,

Results: US heights have stabilized at mid-century and a perio0d of stagnation set in with the birth cohorts 1955-74, concurrent with continual rapid increases in heights in Western and Northern Europe. The American population had been the tallest in the world for two centuries until World War II, but by the end of the 20th century fell behind many of their European counterparts. Only since the most recent birth cohorts 1975-83 is some gain apparent among whites but not among blacks...We conjecture that the American health-care system, as well as the relatively weak welfare safety net might be the reason why human growth in the United States has not performed as well in relative terms as one would expect on the basis of income.

OK. So for the fact that the height of Americans born between 1955 and 1974 "stagnation set in" we's American health care system.

Of course. Only thing it could be.

Mark Thoma has Krugman's take.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (18 to date)
Floccina writes:

It is very hard to belive the some one as smart as Paul Krugman would make a statement like this:

"We conjecture that the American health-care system, as well as the relatively weak welfare safety net might be the reason why human growth in the United States has not performed as well in relative terms as one would expect on the basis of income."

So it makes me believe that he does not believe what he wrote but thinks that he might be able to use it.

jp writes:

Changes in average heights over time is one of the great mysteries of human history. (The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History has a good short article on the subject.) Asserting that such a trend can be explained by a nation's healthcare "system" betrays monumental ignorance (if not something worse).

Anon writes:

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randy writes:

Why is his explanation so far-fetched? Do you doubt the impact of psychological states on the human body? There are so many examples of this that I won't bother to list them here. I shouldn't have to.

I've read articles about the impact of growing up poor and it seems to correlate strongly with obesity. I guess the notion here is that when you're feeling poor your appetite compensates by driving you to eat more when it's available. Even IF cheap food is always available it doesn't make you feel less poor. I could see where a body would also not expends its calories and proteins building a tall body but instead build a starvation-resistant body.

Yes this is a lot of hand-waving and no sources but if you'd like them I will check back and post some links later. I'm at work at the moment and too busy to flesh this out a bit more. I was just so disgusted by your dismissal of a possibly thoughtful hypothesis put out there by Krugman.

John Thacker writes:

Europeans born between 1955 and 1974 are taller than Europeans born between 1935 and 1954, whereas for Americans this doesn't hold true (though Americans born after 1974 do seem to have made some gains.)

Certainly this could be related to the rather more extreme nutritional deprivations in Europe during 1935 to 1954 due to WWII, yes?

Buzzcut writes:

It is quite obvious that Americans are not Europeans. Americans are more diverse.

Now, if you had a study that compared, say, Danish-Americans to Danes, or German-Americans to Germans, that might be a little more interesting.

Carl Marks writes:

If Komlos and Lauderdale wish to use height as an IV for quality of healthcare (which may not be a bad choice), they will need a more complete story. What accounts for the temporary stagnation of whites? Is he controlling for the differences in diets among blacks and whites that are the results of choice and not income? How much do collard greens and fried chicken affect height? How does the study deal with the differences in nutrients per dollar of food bought between US and European consumption? Until the authors can answer these questions, they are grasping for straws.

Carl Marks writes:

Krugman tries to answer the lack of nutrients question by attributing it to working long hours and not having time to cook. If this were true we should see the unemployed cooking a lot more of their own food, but I bet the data would reveal the opposite.

In London many tend to buy pre-made food at the local grocery and simply warm it. They are terrible at cooking. American's could do this without taking anymore time, but they tend to not do so.

Krugman needs to give it a rest and realize that many Americans simply choose to live a less healthy lifestyle.

Krugman also seems to be suggesting that fast food is a Giffen good. Fast food prices rise, people must work harder to maintain income, less time is available to cook, family needs to eat more fast food. Krugman may be able to add a Nobel to his Clark medal if he can show this to hold empirically.

dearieme writes:

Did they control for age of parents? Could it just be that y'all are having your children later than in Yurp and so your bonny bairns are less bouncy? Did they correct for social class: are higher class, and therefore taller, Americans stopping breeding proportionately more than in Yurp? Is it all the drugs? Or is it abstinence - don't youse guys drink enough beer? Is it lack of exercise: those Dutch cycle everywhere whereas you tend to drive, do you not? Or is it that Europeans usually have access to lovely cheese and eat lots of it? Does "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" contain a great truth?

Davison Grant writes:

The "New Yorker" published an article a few years ago on the issue of American's declining growth in height citing similar evidence to that mentioned by Krugman. When I read that article, I felt that expansive arguments about nutrition and/or health care issues possibly were missing the mark.

It occurred to me then, and still does, that there are two variables that I would like to see considered: (1) Relative consumption of caffinated drinks, i.e., did Americans born in 1955-1974 drink more caffinated drinks during adolecense relative to their parents than did Europeans in their cohort? and (2) Relative amount of sleep, i.e., did Americans born in 1955-1974 get less sleep during adolesence relative to their parents than did Europeans in their cohort?

I posit that these two factors could have a greater affect on the declining growth in height than broader societal factors. The 1955-1974 American cohort would have been subject to the burgeoning influence of commercial television in the United States, which would have had the double effect of subjecting them to extensive advertisements for caffinated drinks (e.g., Coca Cola) and providing incentives to get less sleep (stay up late to see Johnny Carson/Letterman).

It comes back to your grandmother's admonition: drinking coffee and lack of sleep will stunt your growth. The individual choices inherent in the behaviour on the part of the American 1955-1974 cohort that I suggest, may have more validity to explaining the observed data.

dearieme writes:

Or is it the healthy Dutch breakfast? Some decent bread, spread with butter, add a slice of ham, then a slice of - yes - cheese and then, I kid you not, sprinkle with chocolate. Yum, yum, and your children are all about 6'7".

Steve Sailer writes:

Why are the Dutch growing taller faster than, say, the Belgians or the Danes or the Germans? The Dutch height boom is rather mysterious.

dearieme writes:

Mysterious indeed, Steve. But unmistakable: their youngsters are towering. A semi-serious suggestion - any correlation with divorce rates? They might be a proxy for rating your own interest higher than that of your children.

DM writes:

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I've read that The Netherlands is a major milk exporter. Maybe the growth hormones fed to the cows are leaking into the water supply.

dearieme writes:

Aw, DM, you spoil the fun if you point out the obvious. We were all just pretending not to know that. Mind you, the Dutch still require explanation. I suspect they are breeding for a war of revenge on Germany. (The outcome will depend on whose side Johnny Turk fights.)

thebastidge writes:

Nothing other than health care.. of course.

Increased immigration of other-than-white-or-black ethnicities (like Asians) wouldn't have anything to do with it.

Nor Hispanic immigration from poorer countries

Nor Americans having reached essentially their maximum genetic/nutrition potential for height

Nor Europeans having been delayed in their nutrition availability so that their greatest gain in height came after Americans had maxed out.

None of these potential explanations could possibly account for these results.

Henrico Otto writes:

Dr. Eades has an interesting take on this:

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