Friday, October 21, 2005

Idea Disparity Follows Income Disparity

In case you haven't yet heard, there's a contest going on at SinceSlicedBread.com to come up with fresh common-sense ideas for improving the day-to-day lives of ordinary Americans, helping working families succeed in the global economy. The first place idea will receive $100k, and second and third place ideas take home $50k apiece. So far, in the initial two and a half weeks of the contest, people in all 50 states and the District of Columbia have submitted thousands of ideas. Have you got a novel idea that you can explain in 175 words? If so, surf on over--you have until December 5 to join the conversation!

With entries streaming in across a multitude of topics--tax, education, wages, savings, medical insurance, energy, outsourcing, etc.--below is the ranking of the 10 most active and 10 least active states by number of entries, as of this morning when a total of 2,750 entries had been submitted:

State (2000 population in millions): Number of Entries

1. California (population of 33.9 million): 326 entries
2. New York (19.0): 203
3. Washington (5.9): 160
4. Texas (20.9): 150
5. Illinois (12.4): 138
6. Florida (16.0): 133
7. Michigan (9.9): 124
8. New Jersey (8.4): 117
9. Pennsylvania (12.3): 115
10. New Mexico (1.8): 114

42. Hawaii (1.2): 8
43. Utah (2.2): 7
44. Idaho (1.3): 6
45. Wyoming (0.5): 6
46. Montana (0.9): 6
47. Alaska (0.6): 6
48. North Dakota (0.6): 3
49. Deleware (0.8): 2
50. South Dakota (0.8): 1
51. Mississippi (2.8): 1

As should be anticipated based solely on population figures, i.e., based on the number of possible entrants in each state, the most populous states generally submit more entries, while the least populous states show far less entry activity.

But, there's another trend in the data that is more interesting to point out than the state-by-state absolute number of entries. If we correct for population by looking at number of entries submitted per million people, we can re-rank the states to find:

State (2004 per-capita income in $k): Number of Entries per Million People

1. New Mexico ($26k per-capita income): 63 entries per million people *
2. District of Columbia (52): 47 **
3. Washington (35): 27
4. Vermont (33): 18
5. New Hampshire (37): 18
6. Virginia (35): 15
7. New Jersey (41): 14
8. Michigan (32): 12
9. Wyoming (34): 12
10. Oregon (30): 11

42. North Dakota (31): 5
43. Idaho (27): 5
44. Indiana (30): 4
45. Louisiana (28): 4
46. Arkansas (26): 4
47. Tennessee (30): 4
48. Utah (27): 3
49. Delaware (36): 3
50. South Dakota (31): 1
51. Mississippi (25): 0

* A single entrant submitted 75 of New Mexico's 114 entries. Without the remarkable participation of this prolific "idea man," New Mexico's tally would drop to 21 entries per million people, behind the District of Columbia and Washington state, placing New Mexico in third rank.

** The SinceSlicedBread idea contest is being sponsored by an organization called Service Employees International Union (SEIU), headquartered in the District of Columbia. Factors that contribute to D.C.'s high participation rate include high per-capita income, higher-than-average political and policy awareness of D.C. residents, and proximity to the sponsor.

Examination of the data for all 50 states and the District of Columbia reveals a rather high correlation (0.5) between per-capita income levels and number of entries submitted per million people, indicating a noticeable relationship between income and ideas. Those who have higher incomes typically spend more time online, have more years of formal education, and may be inclined to devote more of their leisure time to participating in "idea" contests like this one.

Implications we can draw from how contest entries are coming in are:

1. As with income, wealth and education levels in society, the propensity for idea generation is very skewed, perhaps best described by a Pareto-like distribution with "power-law" fall-off as a function of rank. Despite so-called "equal opportunity" in America, there is strong evidence for a "natural law" indicating that outcomes in human endeavors--whether in school, work, sports or contests--inevitably end up as unequally distributed as our physical and mental abilities.

2. Hence, if SEIU really would like to hear the "common sense of the common man," a team should be appointed to solicit ideas from a) residents of those states with the lowest contest participation per million people, and b) non-Internet users and low-income people in all states who have not yet heard of the contest. This way, we would all benefit from extending this conversation to the "other half" of America as well.

(Disclosure: I am participating in the SinceSlicedBread contest. Included among my entries to date is an idea for funding stock investment accounts for kids by tapping half of the annual $1,000-per-child tax credit every year from birth through graduation from high school. Other ideas I have submitted with a primarily economic slant are a procedure for normalizing distortions in wealth distribution, tax-for-labor swaps to reduce unemployment and welfare dependence, and asset taxation to replace income taxation.)

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