For a politician, Rishi Sunak is short. At 5’5″, (some say 5’6″), his height is substantially below most other recent British prime ministers. Except for Harold Wilson (5’8″) and Winston Churchill (5’6″), since 1940, all of his male predecessors were taller than 5’11”.
Similarly, in the United States, we have to go back to the 1970s for a president that was not a six-footer (I added Joe Biden.):
Seeing so many tall powerful people, we can ask why.
Where Height Matters
In recent studies, researchers have concluded that the advantages of height correlate to education, race, and access to healthcare. Still though, we are not sure why taller people are more likely to achieve their cognitive potential. Some have hypothesized that the esteem a taller individual develops as a teen affects future success. Others, connecting height and health, suggest taller people develop more cognitive ability. And a third group thought that we might even have an evolution related bias that equates physical prowess with power.
Below, I’ve excerpted parts of a Washington Post list of occupations with taller people. (It also had an obesity column that I deleted.):
On the cognitive side, taller people tend to have higher degrees:
Knowing the benefits of height, we can ask if it matters that many of us are slightly shorter than in the past:
Explaining why we could be shrinking, some of the reasons relate to inadequate healthcare. Others suggest that an obesity epidemic leads to earlier puberty and less growth. In addition, welcoming immigrants, we wind up with a shorter population whose children will be taller when their offspring are born in the U.S. And finally, one scholar said we lose more height to poverty than we gain from wealth.
With so many opinions and so much disparate data, I concluded that the one thread is human capital.
Our Bottom Line: Human Capital
Just like a factory owner increases physical capital with more equipment, we build our human capital by accumulating education, informal knowhow, and the psychological equipment that lets us optimize our potential. As a constraint or a springboard, height can increase our capacity for human capital.
My sources and more: Thanks to The Washington Post for reminding me we should return to the value of being tall. From there, an NBER paper further confirmed that height matters. But if you read just one article, the classic is from the New Yorker Magazine. Please note that today’s “Our Bottom Line” and several other sentences were previously published in a past econlife.