We are so accustomed to using “growth” to refer to aggregate economic expansion that we forget it is really just a metaphor. It cannot be found in Adam Smith, who spoke instead of the “progress of opulence,” nor a century later even in Marshall who still used “progress” to mean the antithesis of poverty. Keynes used “growth” to denote increases in wealth or population — a proper application to stock-concepts. Harrod may have been among the first to apply the term to the proportionate increase in aggregate income, perhaps illegitimately stretching the metaphor to cover a flow-concept as well. These days, of course, “economic growth” refers almost automatically to increases in measured income.

The original context of growth, however, is biology which, according to Marshall anyway, is “the Mecca of the economist.” What few people are aware of is the link between the metaphorical and the literal — i.e., the economic and the biological — meanings of growth. That is, over the long term, “linear growth” or change in height among humans is actually associated with economic growth.

It was the Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton (e.g., “Height, health, and development,” 2007) who called attention to the fact that height is associated with economic development. While a genetic element is always involved, human height is everywhere the result of an interplay between nutrition and the disease environment working their effects on genetic material, especially in early childhood. As a result, the average adult height of the population — and more importantly how this changes through time — can be an objective, nonmanipulable measure of well-being. Deaton calls adult height “an indicator of both the economic and disease environment in childhood.” Other researchers since then have found sharper associations between height and income per capita and life expectancy. One paper (Akachi and Canning 2015) finds that across countries a one-centimeter increase in the height of a female cohort is associated with a 6-percent rise in income per capita and 1.25 years increase in life expectancy.

For all its chest-thumping about GDP growth under this or that administration, however, the Philippines has performed dismally in terms of actual, i.e., physical growth. A few years ago, some news articles reported that Filipinos were the shortest people in Southeast Asia. Actually, for cohorts of 1996 (i.e., people who were 18 years old in 2014), Filipinas are the second-tiniest women in the world (149.61 cm. or about 4 ft., 10 and 7/8 in.) after Guatemalan women (149.38 cm.). Adult females elsewhere in the world are at least five feet tall on average. (Data are from the 2016 NCD-RisC study published in the journal eLife.)

An even more worrying trend, as the table shows, is that over the half-century since 1946, Filipino women have in fact shrunk. That is, Filipinas born in 1946 were taller by 1.43 cm. (i.e., 151 cm. tall or 4 ft., 11 and 1/16 in.) when they reached adulthood compared to those born fifty years later. Beginning in the mid-1950s (see figure), for reasons still exactly to be determined, there was a slow and steady decline of female height, reaching its lowest point (149.304 cm.) in 1980. It has gradually risen since, but full recovery still has to be attained. Indonesian women overtook Filipinas in height in the mid-1950s and done so ever since. The Philippine record is anomalous in view of the worldwide trend of increasing stature. Even Vietnam and Cambodia managed to eke out height improvements despite suffering through major wars. The Philippines is the only major Asian country aside from Pakistan where height impairment has occurred (the great majority of other examples being found in Africa).

Why does height matter? The reasons go beyond the merely cosmetic and cultural (e.g., taller people getting the better jobs, or Catriona Grey being 178 cm., although some studies may show that as well). Much of adult height is determined in early childhood and during the crucial prenatal period. It is affected by the state of nutrition of the mother and child, their scarring by disease, the stress and anxiety in their environments, and by general conditions of poverty. Moreover height tends to be inherited, since smaller birth canals of smaller women can accommodate only smaller offspring. Short stature has been statistically associated with cognitive impairment, susceptibility to cardiovascular and other diseases, emotional and inferior adult wages. The jury is still out whether short stature by itself — or the poverty correlated with it — is directly responsible for these effects. What is not at issue however is that a society failing to make progress in height — or worse, retrogressing in stature like the Philippines — “cannot be in a wholesome state,” to use Mill’s phrase. It would mean society was failing to address serious problems of nutrition, disease, and poverty.

Nor is this a problem of some dark bad past that has been gradually overcome. The most recent available demographic and health survey (2015) continues to show a high rate of stunting. One-third of all children 0-5 years old are stunted; and among the poorest 20 percent that rate is 50 percent. These numbers exceed even those of East Africa, the most afflicted region of the world. (Shameless plug: some of these issues are tackled in the forthcoming Philippine Human Development Report.)

To be sure, height for individual persons is not necessarily destiny. The brain’s plasticity, a person’s hard work, and her motivation — to the extent these have not been permanently impaired — may make up for prior environmental, economic, and genetic disadvantages. But then a nation’s history becomes not the story of massive collective achievement and uplift but one of exceptional individuals and isolated geniuses who manage to rise above the mediocre mass. A society that is content to thrive on singular success cannot escape failure as the general rule.

As a postscript: Filipinos have a reassuring theory about small size and scale. Many subscribe to the folk wisdom that smaller is in fact better, reminiscent of the saying that “good things come in small packages.” After all, a small labuyò packs more punch than a green siling habâ; a smaller head of native garlic is said to yield more flavor than big imported ones; a small calamansi is more sour than a large foreign lemon. And so forth and so on. Arguing analogously, therefore, we may have reconciled ourselves to thinking that small stature is not a problem — perhaps it is even a virtue.

But there’s another older name for that meme: Consuelo de bobo.


Emmanuel S. de Dios is O.M. Lopez Professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics.