The Economics Department

Dean Spears

Assistant ProfessorPh.D., Princeton University

Dean Spears


  • Phone: 512-475-8543
  • Office: BRB 3.134D
  • Office Hours: Spring 2020 | T 1:00PM-2:00PM
  • Campus Mail Code: C3100


Dean is an economic demographer and development economist.  His research areas include:

  • the health, growth, and survival of children, especially in India
  • the environment, air pollution, and climate change
  • population dimensions of social well-being

Dean is Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Texas at Austin, is a visiting economist at the Economics and Planning Unit of the Indian Statistical Institute in Delhi, is a founding Executive Director of r.i.c.e., and is an affiliate of IZA and of the Climate Futures Initiative at Princeton University.   At UT-Austin, he is an affiliate of the Population Research Center, the South Asia Institute, and Innovations for Peace and Development.  With Diane Coffey, he is the author of the award-winning book Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development, and the Costs of Caste.


ECO 333L • Development And Population

33740 • Fall 2019
Meets MW 11:00AM-12:30PM GSB 2.122

This course is an upper‐division course covering the microeconomics of development, population, and the environment. This course is about the ongoing transition from a world of high mortality and high fertility to a world of low mortality and low fertility, accompanied by dramatic increases in wealth, health, education, and social equality. The course argues that early-life health and wellbeing are critical to human development: children are an important “capital stock” of a population, and culture, norms, and social inequality all shape how children are treated and how they fare.

ECO 333L • Development And Population

33745 • Fall 2019
Meets MW 12:30PM-2:00PM PAR 203

This course is an upper‐division course covering the microeconomics of development, population, and the environment. This course is about the ongoing transition from a world of high mortality and high fertility to a world of low mortality and low fertility, accompanied by dramatic increases in wealth, health, education, and social equality. The course argues that early-life health and wellbeing are critical to human development: children are an important “capital stock” of a population, and culture, norms, and social inequality all shape how children are treated and how they fare.



June 2021 new working paper: Foundations of Utilitarianism under Risk and Variable Population. 2021. with Stéphane Zuber.


Selected publications: (for a complete list please see my c.v.)

Utilitarian Benchmarks for Emissions and Pledges Promote Equity, Climate and Development. Nature Climate Change.  2021. co-corresponding author with Mark Budolfson and five co-authors.

Inversions in Close US Presidential Elections: 1836-2016. AEJ: Applied. 2021. with Mike Geruso and Ishaana Talesara.

Repugnant Conclusions.  Social Choice and Welfare. 2021. with Mark Budolfson.

Additively-separable and rank-discounted variable-population social welfare functions: A characterization. Economics Letters. 2021. with H. Orri Stefánsson.

Neonatal Death in India: Birth Order in a Context of Maternal UndernutritionThe Economic Journal. 2021. with Diane Coffey.

Mere Addition is equivalent to avoiding the Sadistic Conclusion in all plausible variable-population social orderings. Economics Letters. 2020. with Nathan Franz.

The association of early-life exposure to ambient PM2.5 and later-childhood height-for-age in India: an observational study. Environmental Health. 2019. with Sagnik Dey, Sourangsu Chowdhury, Noah Scovronick, Sangita Vyas & Joshua Apte.

Neighborhood sanitation and infant mortality.   AEJ: Applied. 2018. with Michael Geruso.

Impact of population growth and population ethics on climate change mitigation policy. PNAS. 2017.  with Noah Scovronick, Mark Budolfson, Francis Dennig, Marc Fleurbaey, Asher Siebert, Robert H. Socolow, and Fabian Wagner.

The Asymmetry of Population Ethics: Experimental Social Choice and Dual-Process Moral Reasoning. Economics & Philosophy. 2019

Exposure to open defecation can account for the Indian enigma of child height. Journal of Development Economics. 2018.

Sanitation, disease externalities, and anemia: Evidence from Nepal. The Economic Journal. 2018.  with Diane Coffey and Michael Geruso.

Health and hunger: disease, energy needs, and the Indian calorie consumption puzzle. The Economic Journal. 2017. with Josephine Duh.

Health externalities of India's expansion of coal plants: Evidence from a national panel of 40,000 householdsJournal of Environmental Economics and Management. 2017. with Aashish Gupta.

Making people happy or making happy people?: Questionnaire-experimental studies of population ethics and policy. Social Choice and Welfare. 2017.

Optimal population with exhaustible resource constraints. Journal of Population Economics. 2017. with Nicholas Lawson.

Optimal climate policy and the future of world economic development. World Bank Economic Review. 2017.  with Mark Budolfson, Francis Dennig, Marc Fleurbaey, Noah Scovronick, Asher Siebert, and Fabian Wagner.

Place and child health: The interaction of population density and sanitation behavior in developing countries. Demography. 2017. with Payal Hathi, Sabrina Haque, Lovey Pant, and Diane Coffey.

Village sanitation and child health: Effects and external validity in a randomized field experiment in rural India. Journal of Health Economics. 2016.  with Jeffrey Hammer.

Effects of Early-Life Exposure to Rural Sanitation on Childhood Cognitive Skills: Evidence from India's Total Sanitation Campaign. Journal of Human Resources. 2016. with Sneha Lamba.

Decision Costs and Price Sensitivity: Field Experimental Evidence from India. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. 2014.

Having a son promotes clean cooking fuel use in urban India. Economic Development and Cultural Change. 2014. with Avinash Kishore.

Height and cognitive achievement among Indian children. Economics & Human Biology. 2012.



Working papers

Foundations of Utilitarianism under Risk and Variable Population. 2021. with Stéphane Zuber.

Birth Order, Fertility, and Child Height in India and Africa.  IZA discussion paper 12289. 2019.  with Diane Coffey and Jere Behrman. [Stata files]

Heat, Humidity, and Infant Mortality in the Developing World. IZA discussion paper 11717. 2018. with Michael Geruso.


Policy Research

Selected papers: (for a complete list please see my c.v.)

The Social Cost of Carbon: Valuing Inequality, Risk, and Population for Climate Policy. The Monist. 2019. with Marc Fleurbaey, Maddalena Ferranna, Mark Budolfson, Francis Dennig, Kian Mintz-Woo, Robert Socolow, and Stéphane Zuber.

Human health and the social cost of carbon: A primer and call to action. forthcoming in Epidemiology. with Noah Scovronick and coauthors.

The Hidden Zero Problem: Effective Altruism and Barriers to Marginal Impact. forthcoming in Effective Altruism: Philosophical Issues, edited by Theron Pummer and Hilary Greaves, Oxford U. Press. with Mark Budolfson.

Nobel Laureate Bill Nordhaus' Ideas for IndiaIdeas for India. 2018.

Child height in India: Facts and interpretations from the 2015-16 NFHS-4. Economic & Political Weekly (special article section). 2018. with Diane Coffey.

Quantifying India's Climate Vulnerability. India Policy Forum. 2018. with Kevin Kuruc, Melissa LoPalo, and Mark Budolfson. [slides]

Open defecation in rural India, 2015-2016: Levels and trends in the NFHS-4. Economic & Political Weekly. 2018. with Diane Coffey.

Sanitation and religion in South Asia: What accounts for differences across countries?. Journal of Development Studies. 2018 with Sangita Vyas.

Understanding open defecation in rural India: Untouchability, pollution, and latrine pitsEconomic & Political Weekly (special article section). 2017.  with Diane Coffey, Aashish Gupta, Payal Hathi, Nikhil Srivastav, and Sangita Vyas.

An experiment with air purifiers in Delhi during winter 2015-2016.  PLoS ONE.  2016.  with Sangita Vyas and Nikhil Srivastav.

Caste and life satisfaction in rural north IndiaEconomic & Political Weekly. 2016.

Can collective action strategies motivate behavior change to reduce open defecation in rural India?. with Payal Hathi and Diane Coffey.  Waterlines.  2016.

  • winner of the Jeroen Ensink Memorial Prize for 2016

Seeing Past Ethical  Illusions:  Greene's Moral Tribes and Cooperation and Conflict in India. Economic & Political Weekly (book review). 2015.

Why sanitation matters for nutrition. chapter 3 in IFPRI Global Food Policy Report. 2015. with Lawrence Haddad.

Revealed preference for open defecation: Evidence from a new survey in rural north India. Economic & Political Weekly (special article section). 2014.  with Diane Coffey, Aashish Gupta, Payal Hathi, Nidhi Khurana, Nikhil Srivastav, and Sangita Vyas.

Are children in West Bengal shorter than children in Bangladesh? Economic & Political Weekly. 2014. with Arabinda Ghosh and Aashish Gupta.

Stunting among Children: Facts and ImplicationsEconomic & Political Weekly. 2013. with Diane Coffey, Angus Deaton, Jean Drèze, & Alessandro Tarozzi.

Open defecation and childhood stunting in India: An ecological analysis of new data from 112 districtsPLoS ONE. 2013. with Oliver Cumming and Arabinda Ghosh.


Book: Where India Goes

Where India Goes:

Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development, and the Costs of Caste

Diane Coffey and Dean Spears. 2017.

Winner of the 2017 AIIS Joseph W. Elder Book Prize in the Indian Social Sciences

Included among Marginal Revolution's Best Non-Fiction Books of 2017

Included among The Hindu's Top 10 Non-Fiction Books of 2017

Included among LiveMint's What we read in 2017

Around the world, people live longer, better lives than in centuries past, in part because of the rapid adoption of latrines and toilets that keep faecal germs away from growing children.  India is an exception.  Compared to the rest of the world, latrine and toilet adoption in India has been very slow and open defecation remains far too common.  This is one reason why infants in India are more likely to die than in neighboring poorer countries like Bangladesh and Nepal, and are more likely to be stunted than children in sub-Saharan Africa.  Because early-life conditions have life-long consequences, when children cannot develop to their potential, economic development is stunted, too.

Where India Goes demonstrates that India's exceptional open defecation is not the result of poverty.  It is an enduring consequence of the caste system, untouchability, and ritual purity.  Coffey and Spears tell an unsanitized story of an unsanitary subject, with characters spanning the worlds of rural development policy -- from mothers and babies living in villages to local government implementers, senior government policy-makers and international development professionals.

Google Books preview (includes Foreword by Angus Deaton)

Comments on Where India Goes:

  • Marginal Revolution (Alex Tabarrok): "Where India Goes, a book about the problem of open defecation in India, is the best social science book I have read in years."
  • Stanford Social Innovation Review (Abhay Rao): "combining a data-driven approach and often poignant personal accounts... a fresh and compelling perspective that should interest not just policy makers and practitioners in sanitation, but also those working in maternal and child health, and education, and other fields"
  • The Hindu (Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta): "This is a deeply researched and thoughtfully written book about open defecation, the role of caste, and the challenges of implementing policy interventions at this scale. Beyond these questions, it also reflects on the difficult road of development beyond conference platitudes and technocratic solutions."
  • AIIS prize committee: "Praising your manuscript, which they described as 'stunningly well done,' and 'fascinating,' the members of the Publications Committee cited its dramatic ethnographic case studies and well-documented statistical arguments as being of great potential value to both policy makers and general readers..."
  • Business Standard (Rahul Jacob): "One of the most admirable and important books I've ever read"
  • The Wire (Govindan Nair): "Where India Goes is essential reading not only for policymakers and development professionals, but for anyone interested in the paradoxes of development in the early 21st century."
  • Hindustan Times (Sudhirendar Sharma): "A book that is important, timely, and easy to read."
  • The Wire (Awinash Kumar): "A path breaking and brilliant addition to the literature on child malnutrition and development policy in India."



SCW special issue

Call for Papers: Special Issue of Social Choice and Welfare

Population, climate change, and social welfare economics

Authors are invited to submit high-quality papers within the scope of Social Choice and Welfare that focus on population and climate change.  We are especially interested in papers that:

  • Advance formal population ethics, with applications to or illustrations for climate policy; or
  • Advance economic modeling of climate policy (such as Integrated Assessment Models) to improve the treatment of population, especially in models’ social objectives.

Conference at UT-Austin.  A conference will be held at the University of Texas at Austin on the afternoon of February 6th and all day February 7th, 2020.  Authors who submit an abstract, proposal, or paper by the Early Interest Deadline may be invited (with travel funded by UT-Austin) to present at the conference.  Participation at the conference is not required for publication in the special issue.

Deadlines       Early Interest Deadline: November 15th, 2019.

Submit a paper, abstract, or multi-page proposal by email to the two editors for consideration for inclusion at the conference at UT-Austin.

                        Paper Submission Deadline: extended to 30 June, 2020

Submit complete papers for peer review through the Social Choice and Welfare online submission system.  Submissions may be revised papers presented at the UT-Austin conference, or may be new submissions.

Editors             Stéphane Zuber, CNRS                        Dean Spears, UT-Austin


Background.  Climate change has renewed interest in assessing the consequences for policy of population size, which in turn raises difficult normative issues. Following the leading contribution by Derek Parfit, a large literature in social welfare theory, economics, and philosophy has explored the question of “population ethics.” Open theoretical puzzles and challenges remain.

Integrated assessment models (IAMs) of the climate and the economy are widely used in policy-making and are important inputs to inform optimal climate mitigation policy (such as the choice of a carbon tax). Yet, leading climate policy IAMs – such as the DICE model, for which William Nordhaus won the 2018 Economics Nobel Prize – are underdeveloped in their treatment of population. 

The primary focus of the issue will be on the normative aspects of population ethics and their implications for climate change. However, interactions with economy-climate modeling can be fruitful to highlight the relevance of welfare theory for policy. This special issue will aim at fostering inter-disciplinary collaboration. It will welcome theoretical papers on social welfare criteria and/or their implications in simplified or computable models, with a focus on population issues.  Relevant papers in empirical social choice are also invited.  It will also welcome papers using IAMs to discuss the implications of welfare criteria on climate policy in a context where population size can be endogenous.

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