Quantitative analysis, social norms, and policy-making – Researching to combat dissonance in Argentine public debate.

Ian Mijael Zhang, COL ’25, Buenos Aires City, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Has the Argentine public sector’s size gone out of control in the last two decades? Is Argentina heading to a labor market dominated by public employment? It sure seems to have become an empirical norm repeated in unison in public debate and political campaigns, especially by the rising populist liberal-libertarian Freedom Forward party. After immersing myself in statistics, economics, government, law, political philosophy, and international relations in my first year at Penn, I re-discovered my drive to work at the intersection between public policy and quantitative analysis to foster good governance and healthy dialogue. Following developments at home closely, it was more evident than ever that science and policy appeared to belong in two different universes in Argentina, leading to the opposite scenarios for policy-making and discussion.

Given all this, I took a research position at the Argentine Center for Investigation in the Public Administration (CIAP) at the Economics School of the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) in collaboration with the Argentine National Institute of Public Administration (INAP). A team of Economics PhDs and Masters welcomed me into their multi-year-long project to assess the future of the Argentine government from 2030-2050 to advise technocrats and politicians. I soon learned I would work on crafting a report on the federal, provincial and municipal government’s past, present, and future weight as a labor consumer. My background as a PPE student born to a labor-union lawyer and government consultant made this idea particularly exciting. 

Nevertheless, early into the summer, I encountered many of the challenges I had pre-empted and feared: the information I needed just was not there, the project had no funding to grant my supervisors the privilege of not working multiple other jobs or purchase the software I necessitated, a mega-economic and political crisis that made headlines all over the world broke out mid-internship, and I realized that never having taken an econometrics or forecasting course in my life might be an issue. Although depleting at times, every one of these obstacles became an opportunity to grow as a future policy analyst. Resiliency, independence, discipline, networking, bureaucracy-management, E-views, Time-Lab Series, in-depth Excel, and some R-programming are the soft and hard skills I acquired through this opportunity.

My final report disproves the null hypothesis, a nationwide rooted empirical norm, that government size and public employment have exponentially grown in the last twenty years and that Argentina is heading to a state-led labor market. I am extending my research further by assessing which government sectors have grown and will continue to do so to challenge the nationally renowned Gnocchi Rule (i.e., that government hires unqualified administrative staff to perform useless tasks). I am also contrasting data with the rest of the region and globe to explore whether it is true that Argentina is failing to conform to yet another textbook macro-economic rule (Kuznets). This time regarding the desired importance of the public sector as market-demand for labor.

My findings are bound to be elevated to the relevant government authorities and published by the institute with the rest of the volume, co-authored by renowned Argentine economists. I look forward to continuing my work in the policy-analysis sector for the Latin America region after a summer of learning by doing at the intersection of what I love, for the place where my heart still beats while contributing to funding my Penn education. This virtuous combination would not have been possible without the support of Career Services and the warm welcome of Dr. Gustavo Blutman into his team of brilliant professionals. 

This is part of a series of posts by recipients of the 2022 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they spent their summer. You can read the entire series here.

By Career Services
Career Services