For most of the history of the United States, Americans were the tallest people in the world. Recently, though, northern Europeans became the world’s tallest people. The Scandinavians have a reputation for stature, but it turns out it is the the Dutch who are the tallest — eight inches taller, on average, than they were two centuries ago.
Hacker and Pierson argue the shift occurred because, these days, active government has made Europeans healthier than we are. In particular, according to the authors, they have healthier childhoods, because their governments offer more material help to pregnant women and infants than does the U.S. government.
Wonkblog: This is my favorite sentence in the book: “The Dutch have had to rewrite their building codes so men don’t routinely smash their heads into door frames.” Can you talk about why that fact is important?
Hacker: The United States has gone from being the country with the tallest people in the world by a pretty significant margin — during the Second World War, Americans were a couple inches taller than the Germans they were fighting — to a country in which heights are pretty middling compared with other rich democracies. We mention Dutch men running into the tops of doorways because we and the people who study height think it’s a very good marker of population health. It tells you about nutrition in the womb and socioeconomic cohesion and the degree to which a society is good at encouraging a sort of healthy flourishing, particularly in early life.