The Benefits of Immigration: Sichuan Food in Cleveland

October 21, 2013

Economics blogger Matthew Yglesias has long argued that we should take the food service industry more seriously. Food service companies drive economic growththey are relentlessly innovativeand they provide meaningful opportunities for career advancement. It is also perhaps the one sector of the economy where we are united as a country in acknowledging the value of immigration. We have great Mexican food in Chicago, great Ethiopian food in Philadelphia, and as Yglesias recently learned, apparently great Sichuan food in Cleveland. This diversity of dining options makes life better in a very real way, and it wouldn’t happen without immigration:

The key point is that while “can make some cumin lamb or sichuan cold noodles” doesn’t necessarily count as the highest-level skill in the world, it’s certainly not a skill that’s in abundance among the native-born population of Cleveland.

Mabodoufu (マーボー豆腐) as served at 餃子の王将 in Kobe, Japan, by Laitr Keiows (Creative Commons)

Thanks to immigration, “native” Clevelanders have access to authentic Sichuan food – an experience that might otherwise require a plane trip (and would therefore be out of reach for many). But the benefits of having a Chinatown in your city go beyond ready access to mapo tofu (a benefit that should not be understated):

To some extent the existence of [new Sichuan restaurants] may crowd out dining at other eateries in Cleveland, but mostly it serves to generate a whole new class of products—authentic Chinese cooking—that otherwise wouldn’t exist in the area. That in turn serves to generate complementary employment (building trades to rehab the building, for example, or truck drivers to deliver supplies) while also bolstering the tax base of a city that’s in general tended to be afflicted with population flight.

Taking a step back, this is an excellent example of immigration’s impact on the economy at large. Jobs and opportunity arise out of economic activity. If we can import economic activity (by allowing immigration), we can create more jobs and more opportunity. This is true even if there are isolated examples where incumbent interests lose out (like if increased competition from five new Sichuan restaurants is the final straw that drives a struggling pizzeria out of business).

Creating more economic activity is particularly important for cities facing population decline:

To think of the city as having a fixed sum of jobs that are either “taken” by immigrants or else “left” for natives is very misleading. Most rust belt cities are at risk of a kind of downward spiral of decline, where people leave and the fact that other people have left makes it a worse place for other people to find opportunities. To the extent that foreigners can move to take advantage of the considerable benefits of living in the United States (democracy, the rule of law, free speech, etc.) by locating in places that are at risk of decline, it becomes a genuine win-win.

All that, plus a more interesting lunch.


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