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Bigger Government, Smaller People? Not Really, Mr. Speaker


House Speaker John Boehner, on Monday evening, in his response to President Obama:

You know, I’ve always believed, the bigger government, the smaller the people. And right now, we have a government so big and so expensive it’s sapping the drive of our people and keeping our economy from running at full capacity.

Actually, that's not true. Statistically speaking, the world's tallest people live in the Netherlands, where government spending accounts for about half of gross domestic product. In fact, most countries in northern Europe, including the social democratic utopias of Scandinavia, now have taller people than the U.S.

I realize that Boehner was speaking metaphorically. But the metaphor is wrong, too. Among developed nations, plenty have thrived economically with much bigger governments than we have. Instead of crippling growth in those countries, high taxes may have enabled it by financing a welfare state that makes citizens better tolerate the volatility of the global economy.

But back to the more literal interpretation for a moment: If the size of a nation's government has any effect on the size of its people, it may be that bigger really is better. Burkhard Bilger explained why in a 2004 New Yorker article:

Holland’s growth spurt began only in the mid-eighteen-hundreds, [economic historian J.W.] Drukker found, when its first liberal democracy was established. Before 1850, the country grew rich off its colonies, but the wealth stayed in the hands of the wealthy, and the average citizen shrank. After 1850, height and income suddenly fell into lockstep: when incomes went up, heights went up (after a predictable lag time), and always to the same degree. “I thought I must have made an error,” Drukker said. “I must have correlated one of the variables with itself.” He hadn’t. Holland, like the rest of Northern Europe, had simply managed to spread its prosperity around. These days, Dutch heights no longer keep pace with the economy. (“We can’t grow to four metres just because our income quadruples,” Drukker says.) But the essential equation is the same: when the G.N.P. grows, everyone grows.
As America’s rich and poor drift further apart, its growth curve may be headed in the opposite direction, [economic historian John] Komlos and others say. The eight million Americans without a job, the forty million without health insurance, the thirty-five million who live below the poverty line are surely having trouble measuring up. And they’re not alone. As more and more Americans turn to a fast-food diet, its effects may be creeping up the social ladder, so that even the wealthy are growing wider rather than taller. “I’ve seen a similar thing in Guatemala,” [anthropologist Barry] Bogin says. “The rich kids are taken care of by poor maids, so they catch the same diseases. When they go out on the street, they eat the same street food. They may get antibiotics, but they’re still going to get exposed.”
[Economist Richard] Steckel has found that Americans lose the most height to Northern Europeans in infancy and adolescence, which implicates pre- and post-natal care and teen-age eating habits. “If these snack foods are crowding out fruits and vegetables, then we may not be getting the micronutrients we need,” he says. In a recent British study, one group of schoolchildren was given hamburgers, French fries, and other familiar lunch foods; the other was fed nineteen-forties-style wartime rations such as boiled cabbage and corned beef. Within eight weeks, the children on the rations were both taller and slimmer than the ones on a regular diet.

The (sad) irony here is that nobody in Washington is talking about seriously expanding government right now. The latest offer on the table from President Obama would reduce deficits primarily by reducing spending, with only modest revenue increases. It's possible that, come 2012, all of the Bush tax cuts will expire. But that would merely restore those rates to what they were during the Clinton era. We'd still have a lower lower tax burdens than our European counterparts. 

Update: I added the New Yorker reference, which a friend e-mailed, and revised accordingly. Also, this item desperately needed a scatterplot to illustrate the point. Thankfully, the Washington Post's Ezra Klein and Dylan Matthews have supplied the one you see above.