Kelvin Lancaster

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Kelvin Lancaster
Born (1924-12-10)December 10, 1924
Sydney, Australia
Died July 23, 1999(1999-07-23) (aged 74)
New York, New York
Nationality Australian
Fields Economics
Institutions Columbia University
Alma mater University of London (PhD 1958)
University of London External Programme (BSc 1953)
University of Sydney (BA 1948) Sydney Boys High School
Known for Theory of the second best
Lancasterian demand theory

Kelvin John Lancaster (December 10, 1924 – July 23, 1999) was a mathematical economist and John Bates Clark professor of economics at Columbia University. He is best known for the development of the Theory of the Second Best with Richard Lipsey.[1] Lancaster was also active in developing the calculus of qualitative economics,[2][3] formulating the household production function, and applying the hedonic model to the estimation of the price of houses.

In a 1966 paper, Lancaster developed what he called a "new theory of consumer demand", in which the then standard microeconomic demand theory was modified by stipulating that what consumers are seeking to acquire is not goods themselves (e.g. cars or train journeys) but the characteristics they contain (e.g. transport from A to B, display of fashion sense). As Palda (2013)[4] explains "The second evolution in spatial economics was due to Kelvin Lancaster. His insight was that the basic qualities that consumers seek could be manipulated by combining different products. Hotelling had not considered this possibility. He had been content to accept that one good provided one underlying feature that could be measured in characteristics space. Lancaster saw the matter in greater breadth. Dinner was not just food on a table. It was an attempt to manipulate the basic constituents of flavor and nutrition into a satisfying gastronomic experience. Being a good cook meant knowing that taste had several dimensions including sweet, salty, sour, and savory. For a meal to be agreeable, it had to combine these elements of flavor and it also had to be easily digested, suggesting that nutritional dimensions such as greasiness, protein content, and temperature had to figure into the cook’s understanding. These basic culinary entities could each be thought of as lying on a left-right scale, or space. The ideal meal, then, sought to combine these features by varying each one as precisely as possible. The challenge, though, is that the kitchen is not a laboratory where atoms and molecules can be precisely combined into new structures. In the kitchen you must combine ingredients that may each contain many of the features you are trying to fine tune. The tomatoes that go into pasta sauce give nutrition, but are acidic. Sugar must be added to moderate the sourness that comes with acid. The more ingredients at your disposal, the better able you are to fine-tune the six or seven basic characteristics of a good meal. The point is actually more difficult to grasp than we first appreciate. Ingredients are an imperfect means to an end. Each ingredient contains different combinations of one or more and perhaps even all of the basic characteristics. By combining ingredients we enhance or blunt the effect of different characteristics in the final meal. The fixed composition of characteristics in the ingredients may never allow us to attain precisely the ideal mix of characteristics we seek. The skill of the cook is in combining the ingredients at his or her disposal in such a manner as to approach as closely as possible this ideal “point” in the multi-dimensional “gastronomic characteristics space”."[5] This theory provides a convenient account of the difference between less developed (Lancaster called them "primitive") consumption economies, in which there are fewer goods than characteristics, and more developed ("sophisticated") consumption economies, in which there are more goods than characteristics, so that consumers can secure any combination of characteristics they desire, subject only to budget constraints. It also provides a way of predicting demand for new commodities, so long as they do not embody any new characteristics.[6]

According to the economist Jagdish Bhagwati, "He [Kelvin Lancaster] was widely regarded as a potential recipient of the Nobel Prize, for the notable impact that had been made by his contributions to the theory of second best and the integration of variety into economic theory. He joins the list of extraordinary economists such as Joan Robinson, Roy Harrod and Mancur Olson whom death deprived of this singular honor."

He attended Sydney Boys High School, graduating in 1940.[7]


  1. ^ Lipsey, R. G.; Lancaster, Kelvin (1956). "The General Theory of Second Best". Review of Economic Studies 24 (1): 11–32. doi:10.2307/2296233. JSTOR 2296233.  edit
  2. ^ Lancaster, Kelvin (1962). "The Scope of Qualitative Economics". Review of Economic Studies 29 (2): 99–123. doi:10.2307/2295817. JSTOR 2295817.  edit
  3. ^ Kelvin J. Lancaster, 1968. Mathematical Economics, Macmillan.
  4. ^ Palda, Filip (2013). The Apprentice Economist: Seven Steps to Mastery. Ottawa: Cooper-Wolfling Press. ISBN 978-0987788047
  5. ^ Lancaster, Kelvin J. (1966). "A New Approach to Consumer Theory". Journal of Political Economy 74 (2): 132–157. doi:10.1086/259131. JSTOR 1828835.  edit
  6. ^ Ronald Findlay, 2008. "Lancaster, Kelvin John" (1924–1999)," The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, 2nd Ed. Abstract.
  7. ^

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