Economic Man vs. Humanity: a puppet rap battle

An economist, a songwriter, and a puppet-maker walked into a recording studio. What do you think came out?…An economics puppet rap battle, of course.

One of the most dangerous stories at the heart of 20th century economics is the depiction of humanity as rational economic man. In my book Doughnut Economics I decided he needed a portrait so I drew him, standing alone, with money in his hand, ego in his heart, a calculator in his head and nature at his feet. He hates work, he loves luxury and he knows the price of everything.

Now here’s the most fascinating (and unnerving) thing I discovered while researching the history and influence of this character. The more that economics students learn about him – from Year 1 to Year 2 to Year 3 of their studies – the more they say they value traits such as self-interest and competition over traits such as altruism and collaboration.

The implication? Who we tell ourselves we are shapes who we become.

Over the past year I have been contacted by many economics teachers around the world – especially those in secondary schools – who want to encourage their students to critique this text-book model and offer them a far more nuanced understanding of human behaviour.

So that got me thinking…

I teamed up with the brilliant puppet designer Emma Powell and the ingenious musician Simon Panrucker and, with funding from the Network for Social Change (big thanks, folks!), we created this video – Economic Man vs Humanity: a puppet rap battle.

We’d love to see it in use in classrooms, conferences, reading groups, community groups, and shared widely on social media, on web platforms, on teaching resource sites.

If you are a teacher, please do use it to start a debate in your classroom (the video ends with a question for that very reason). You can also download the lyrics of the rap, complete with historical and theoretical sources for all the key quotes and concepts that they contain. Why not get your students to write their own economic rap battle –  here’s the fantastic backing track for anyone who wants to rap along.

And if your students want to dive further into the back story and future possibilities of Rational Economic Man, then I recommend Chapter 3 of Doughnut Economics, which was the basis for the whole project.

If you are a student, please do share the video with your fellow future economists, get your teacher involved, and help kick off a much-needed discussion.

And if you host a web discussion, a new economics resource site, a community network, or a teachers’ forum, you are very welcome to feature the film on your site – we’d love to hear what you do with it.

And if you are simply curious, you’ll love this peek behind the scenes to see how the rap battle got made.

Sit back and enjoy the Puppet Rap Battle – sing along, pass it on, and let’s say farewell to Rational Economic Man. Today’s students know that it’s time to create a better portrait of who we are for 21st century economics.

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Economic Man vs Humanity: a Puppet Rap Battle (Instrumental Version) by Simon Panrucker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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25 thoughts on “Economic Man vs. Humanity: a puppet rap battle

  1. Martine
    5 September 2018 at 10:33

    Love it!
    Even though I am not a teacher.

  2. Jan v Gils
    5 September 2018 at 10:45

    Beautifull text – but the video is not my peace off cake.

  3. 5 September 2018 at 10:49

    I worked as a performance analyst for football teams that got promoted like never ever before or since (EG Wimbledon 4th to 1st Division) in 1980/2000 logging every possession in every match. Simple economics – winning is done by getting the number of lost possessions of our goal down to around 120 from 180 this made the opposition take 240 plus for their average goal/season. It was harnessing the effect of chance of team movement. Everything has patterns said Einstein. In football, I found that these patterns are laws of chance that control the game however it is played and at every level. The control of chance is uncanny and it is difficult to get people to believe you (because they have no apparatus for envisaging these invisibles?). In my 80th year I am now finishing off a book about my adventure of discovery and letting go a few secrets. I would be pleased to give you a resume if you find this as interesting as I hope you will

  4. Andy Wilson
    5 September 2018 at 11:09

    This is terrific, especially the story telling format which is in itself a rebuke of homo economicus. Will be sharing!

  5. 5 September 2018 at 11:26

    Great Book. Video is a great take on economic man and the misleading role it plays as taught in economics.
    Get the book it is well argued and should be influencing all our politicians and civil servants. If you know one of them buy them the book, I did, and don’t wait for Christmas. (You can if you want to…)

  6. Marcus Simmons
    5 September 2018 at 11:26

    Brilliant – thanks so much! Am sharing widely..

  7. 5 September 2018 at 13:52

    Great stuff… as well as being shared through social media networks stories and messages like this need to be shared through real life contact situations… across long established familiar networks like in public houses … accessible social spaces where people come together to meet, share experience and broaden horizons


  8. 5 September 2018 at 14:50

    Kate – absolutely brilliant! Thank you – what a wonderful way to start a conversation about who we are as humans and why our institutions are letting us down big time. A wake up call and antidote to sleep walking into the future. Love it. Love your work. Will share at every opportunity!

  9. Ulrike
    5 September 2018 at 15:11

    In principle very nice, since it is so important and high time to question this outdated model of the economic man. The innovative format surely helps to spread the message and spark interest. Yet, I’m quite disappointed that in a video which advocates a different and more modern thinking than: “Ego in heart, nature’s at his will for bending” uses the same old humans vs. animal picture and again stresses that humans are so much more than animals (“We’re more socially invested than the naked mole rat” and “We are so much more than just a dollar hunting animal”). At the end this is exactly the same attitude which fuels the whole “nature’s at his will for bending” world view and stands for me oddly in contrast to the idea of seeing humanity as a part of nature’s cycle. Further, this view is in itself so outdated. There are endless studies out there which show cooperative, social and altruistic behavior in all kinds of animals. You want something new, than think new….

    1. 5 September 2018 at 17:08

      Sorry you feel that way, Ulrike. Let me give you some context.

      Science shows that humans are the most social mammal beyond their immediate kin – even more so than the naked mole rat, which is the most social among its own kin.

      The phrase “dollar-hunting animal” is a direct quote from Charles Stanton Devas, a 1880s critic of John Stuart Mill’s homo oeconomicus.

      And we were delighted to get the puppets rapping “we’re not above the web of life, we’re deeply embedded”.

      Take a look at the fully sourced lyrics to see how the lyrics are grounded in the history of economic theory.

      1. 5 September 2018 at 23:50

        I’m with Ulrike. Kate betrays homo, not eco centric views. I keep trying to reach her, but my posts get lost in the crowd.
        ‘Be agnostic about growth’ is a brilliant insight. Pity Kate missed the relevance of the Basic income in this context.
        Please read my blog post ‘Kate Raworth’s Doughnut – what’s missing’.

  10. 5 September 2018 at 15:48

    Hi Kate:

    I look forward to using this video as part of my Foundations of Sustainable Business Class at Fordham University.

    I also can promote it on the Living Fieldbook resource that accompanies the 2nd Edition of The Sustainable Enterprise Fieldbook.

    I will let you know how it all goes.

    Bill Russell

    1. 5 September 2018 at 17:03


  11. Sandy Wiggins
    5 September 2018 at 17:19

    Brilliant! Love this.

  12. 5 September 2018 at 18:21

    This is exciting. I’m so grateful to the reader who recommended this book, as while I’m writing fiction, it features a world that opposes this point of view to the ‘economic man’ one. Looking forward to reading the book asap. cheers.

  13. Marc Wright
    6 September 2018 at 00:38


    Mainstream undergrad economics study in the U.S. has included reexamining H. Economics for several years now.

    Only as one of the “must know” fringe concepts before the 2007 meltdown. Then with increasing seriousness and depth since.

    Ariely, Kahneman, and Thaler are familiar to most students, at least by the time they reach second level.

    Since hearing Thaler answer questions on the potential for wide scale chamges in economic behaviour I have worried that the donut gear and the behavioural economics gear are not lining up in a way that will manifest the synergy potential of that combination.

    Thaler was answering questions about whether the inherent biases at the core of his theory will lead to a spontaneous social shift to more sustainable lifestyles, or whether such a shift will require evangelizing and nudging.

    His response, if you’ll indulge the crude broad brush paraphrase, was, Could go either way. Not much frame of reference for responses to existential forces. Further complicated globally by effort required to adjust an unprecedented number of fundamental demographic and technological changes. __A key question is whether humans are up to the challenges of the next century. The latter scenario sounds quite wishful__.

    Since this dialogue is in the Zeitgeist I think that content similar to this in character, but laser focused on examining the gap between the donut and the predictably-irrational-but-persuadable, and the substantial potential synergy of their combination, would yield tremendous value.

    It’s reasonable to hope that the dialogue would shift to more public discussion in favor of actions that can bring about the necessary shift. Actions including official public policies, and model behaviours among social influencers.

    It seems the next logical step from the simultaneous separate developments of donut and behavioural. The notion behind it is relatively simple, as things go: “We know more now than we ever have about how and why humans make particular economic decisions. And we know the economic decisions humans need to adopt as their new habit for the sake of their existential security. So it’s fitting andnecessarytoengage an Apollo program aimed at finding some of the pieces needed to solve perhaps the greatest challenge we’ve ever faced.”

  14. Peter Fischer
    6 September 2018 at 07:23

    This is the best description I have come across of the men of MBA and Bottom Line mentality. As a one time entrepreneur taken down by so called experts I think this should be compulsory education for all young people, anhd a caution for anyone with an idea for improving the world.

  15. David Harold Chester
    6 September 2018 at 13:06

    What we need for teaching economics (particularly the macro- part) is a model that works mechanically. Many students are inclined towards mechanical things and when their minds are switched over to a less formal trend as in the doughnut they will initially rebel. If you are really concerned for improving the minds of those who are learning to think in terms of how our social system works, then please pay attention to my short working paper (on the internet) SSRN 2800103 “A Mechanical Model for Teaching Macroeconomics”. So It is my claim that we can teach macroeconomics more easily without having to redirect and introduce this unnecessary revolution!

  16. David Harold Chester
    6 September 2018 at 13:07

    sorry, the number should have been 2600103 not 2800103.

  17. Eirini Saratsi
    8 September 2018 at 12:36

    Thank you! I will be using this in my lectures, for sure.
    I already use your videos for teaching a geography module called Growth, degrowth and sustainability at Reading University. The module is well attended by around 150 students from Geography and Economics every year. I am not sure thought how many of them go away at the end of the year having changed considerably their minds. But, it’s only reasonable to hope, so keep trying!

    1. 10 September 2018 at 20:55

      I’m delighted to hear this, Eirini. I hope you saw the link to the fully sourced lyrics, showing how the rap lyrics are carefully grounded in the history of economic theory. It should be a great resource for teaching – and perhaps you could invite your students to write their own rap critique.

  18. Steve Hawkins
    14 September 2018 at 04:06

    This is really beautiful work, Kate! It really is quite captivating as the puppets are so beautifully crafted and expressive.

    The only drawback I noticed with my own viewing was that I was so captivated by watching the visual spectacle that I had to keep reminding myself to try to concentrate on the message. This might just be a particular problem for me though, as I’ve always found it difficult to follow both sound and visual storyline at the same time.

    I’m sure it’ll be a popular way of getting young people to think of different ways we might be doing things. Great idea.

  19. 4 October 2018 at 02:34

    “No device can output sum useful energy in excess of the total energy put into constructing it”, owing to Entropy internal to matter (wear and tear).

    In the future, this can be understood by scientists a statement of ‘despite the Sun shines every morning, winds blow, rivers flow and man can ‘split’ and ‘fuse’ atoms, humans can not manufacture energy”. It always and only comes from the past into the future.

    For non-scientists, it might be understood as The Tragedy of the Commons being now quantified and given its own law of Thermodynamics.

    Being this long-overlooked relationship now identified, it will be etched deep into humans’ DNA as the mother of all Economics – for good!