Of 43 American presidents, only five have been more than a smidgeon below average height, and the last of those was Benjamin Harrison, elected in 1888. (Another three, most recently Jimmy Carter, were just a hair below average height.) Most presidents have been several inches taller than the norm for their times, with the five tallest being Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, Thomas Jefferson, and Franklin Roosevelt—suggesting, incidentally, that height predicts not just electoral success but a propensity to subvert the Constitution. (This statistical anomaly works in the other direction as well; the shortest of American presidents was James Madison, who largely wrote the Constitution.)
So, what's the deal? Why do the tall tower over the short in more than just physical stature? Does height breed respect, so that tall people get showered with riches? Or does height breed self-esteem, so that tall people are more likely to assert themselves? In other words, do tall people succeed because of how others see them, or do tall people succeed because of how they see themselves? That sounds like the kind of question you could argue for years and never settle, but three clever economists have gone ahead and settled it. Their names are Nicola Persico, Andy Postlewaite, and Dan Silverman of the University of Pennsylvania, and they've uncovered a key bit of evidence: Tall men earn an extra $1000 dollars per month on average compared to short men.
Why should adolescent self-esteem be so significant?
Partly, perhaps, because self-esteem, once learned, lasts a lifetime. But partly also because a kid with self-esteem is more likely to join the teams, clubs, and social groups where he learns to interact with people. And that participation is clearly valuable. The economists report that "after controlling for age, height, region and family background, participation in athletics is associated with an 11.4 percent increase in adult wages, and participation in every club other than athletics is associated with a 5.1 percent increase in wages." These effects account for part, but not all, of the wage premium for adolescent height.
Or the causality might go the other way: Maybe it's not self-esteem that gets you to go out for the chess club, but success in the chess club that breeds self-esteem. What we do know is that shorter kids tend to avoid extracurricular activities, and those activities are clearly associated with success in later life.
Do you dominate if you are taller?
Did Lincoln free the slaves and Clinton lie to the grand jury because they learned in adolescence that they could dominate others through their height? Of course, it can't be quite that simple. But thanks to Persico, Postlewaite, and Silverman, we really do know a lot more than we used to about how and why the very tall are different from the rest of us.