There are very few things that fill me with blind, foaming-at-the-mouth, let’s-burn-some-cars, hey-did-you-bring-the-kerosene, no-I-left-it-in-my-other-pants rage. At the very top of this short list is the depressing and indeed pathetic lack of solidarity among short men. The real problem facing short men is not that we are often looked down upon by the rest of society. The real problem is that short men routinely sell out other short men.
Most of you know that short people have it rough in a society like ours. In affluent countries, tall people live longer than short people. Tall people also earn more than short people, and they tend to have more prestigious jobs. Why might this be the case? About a decade ago, Nicola Persico, Andrew Postlethwaite, and Dan Silverman offered a provocative hypothesis: What really shapes adult earnings is not one’s current height, but rather height in one’s teenage years. They found that controlling for height in one’s teen years essentially wipes out the effect of adult height on earnings for white men. This suggests that it is not so much discrimination that is holding short people back, rather it is the way our adolescent experiences shape our life trajectories. For example, being tall as a teenager could make you more socially confident, which in turn will translate into making you more likely to pursue educational opportunities that will redound to your benefit later in life.
More recently, the economists Anne Case and Christina Paxson offered a more sobering take: The main reason height and earnings are so closely related is that height is positively associated with cognitive ability. That is, the taller you are, the smarter you are (on average). This is a bit of an oversimplification, as what really matters, according to Case and Paxson, is whether you’ve had access to the resources you need to reach your full growth potential. If you were destined to be as tall as the professional basketball player Hasheem Thabeet, who stands at 7-foot-3, yet you’re only as tall as Hakeem Olajuwon, who is a mere 6-foot-10, there’s a good chance that you didn’t get the nutrition and the good vibes you needed to flourish as a wee babe. But if you were always going to max out at 5 feet and you make it to that size, you’re in solid shape as far as cognitive development goes. Even so, it’s not crazy to assume that, on average, the taller among us had early development advantages over the shorter among us. So should short men rage against mustache-twirling capitalists because we fare less well than tall men in the labor market? No, I don’t think so.
It’s also true that short people, and particularly short men, tend to be disfavored in the mating market, as Ann Friedman has noted. I don’t see this as a grave injustice either. While it’s true that many women might profit from giving short men a second look, since awesome short men are less in-demand than their taller counterparts—I call this “shortbitrage”—it’s also true that short men are generally less likely to kill a woolly mammoth for you. This is not to say that short men can’t do amazing things. Speaking only for myself, I can recite every line from Ghostbusters and I can make a pretty decent origami velociraptor. But it is easy to see why women might prefer men who can defeat other men in hand-to-hand combat, and this is an area where short men tend not to excel.
What is troubling, however, is that short men do not act as a unified bloc. Some years ago, Gallup surveyed American men on their attitudes toward height. They divided their sample of men into three groups: those below 5-foot-8, those between 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-11, and those above 6 feet. When asked if they’d prefer to be taller or to remain at their current height, 78 percent of men in the tallest third said that they’d remain at their current height while only 19 percent said that they’d like to be taller. Among men in the shortest third, in contrast, 54 percent said that they’d prefer to remain at their current height while 45 percent said that they’d prefer to be taller. As I read these numbers, a deep sadness came over me. With so many short men eager to be taller, it’s no wonder that we fail to hang together in the face of a hostile world.