The Bigger The Government, The Taller The People

Speaking last night, House Speaker John Boehner offered his view that “You know, I’ve always believed, the bigger government, the smaller the people.” As Jonathan Cohn observes, in fact the tallest people live in the Netherlands where taxes are considerably higher than in the United States. And, indeed, the other countries where average height now exceeds America’s are also high-tax European welfare states. John Komlos and Marieluise Baur have researched this issue and reached the conclusion that Boehner has it precisely backwards and America’s high level of inequality and low level of social services is responsible for our relative decline in stature:

Within the course of the 20th century the American population went through a virtual metamorphosis from being the tallest in the world, to being among the most overweight. The American height advantage over Western and Northern Europeans was between 3 and 9 cm in mid-19th century, and Americans tended to be underweight. However, today, the exact opposite is the case as the Dutch, Swedes, and Norwegians are the tallest, and the Danes, British and Germans — even the East-Germans — are also taller, towering over the Americans by as much as 3–7 cm. Americans also have shorter lives. The hypothesis is worth considering that this adverse development is related to the greater social inequality, an inferior health care system, and fewer social safety nets in the United States than in Western and Northern Europe, in spite of higher per capita income. The Western and Northern European welfare states, with cradle to grave health and unemployment insurance currently seems to provide a more propitious environment for the biological standard of living than its US counterpart.

This will probably not impress Boehner very much, but it is worth emphasizing. Insofar as you can try to locate a coherent economic theory somehow in the House GOP’s bargaining position, it seems to involve an obsessive focus on labor supply. All kinds of costs — from sharp cutbacks in anti-poverty programs, to running the hard-to-quantify risk that failure to reach retirement will wipe out middle class savings—are worth running in order to minimize the extent that taxes discourage people from doing paid work. And, clearly, if everyone could be inspired to work 25 percent more, then presumably measured economic output would increase. But would quality of life improve? What pressing problems would we be solving? The height data offers some reason to think that this is a misguided approach to removing the real impediments to improving people’s lives.