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Height and the economic historians

Newmark's Door points to an article in the New Yorker which discusses work by economic historians on variations in human height. Initiated by Nobel Laureate Robert Fogel, the path of this work was not pre-conceived, but rather guided by the formation of intellectual puzzles and subsequent data analysis. The findings are stunning, and important.

From studying height differences between African-American slaves and their African contemporaries, Americans and Europeans, oriental peoples over time, and so on, emerges an intriguing and engrossing tale. We now know that the average height of a population is a long run indicator of a society's health, a summary index of nutrition and disease. Urbanization in the middle ages decreased height, due to the effects of concentrating disease. The migration from Europe to America increased height dramatically, one of Fogel's early findings. But this trend has been dramatically reversed in the last half century, as the height of American's has reached a plateau while other societies have shot past. The stereotypical image of a small oriental male does not fit that of professional athletes such as Yao Ming, Ichiro, or Chung Ho Park. These fellows are the leading edge of a dramatic increase in height of oriental populations as their economies develop, and nutrition and health improve.

These findings are of immense interest and importance for public policy. For example, should pre and post-natal care be entirely free to everyone in a society? They are so in the Netherlands. This is a critical stage of development, with long term implications for the future health of children. As the New Yorker article notes, the Dutch have grown from "among the smallest people in Europe to the largest in the world" over the last century. Maybe this is a coincidence. Or do the Dutch have the model policy for "no child left behind?"

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