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    Budgeting with Piers the Plowman

    A local councilwoman looks for creative, practical ways to incorporate the wisdom of a fourteenth-century poem into her government work.

    By Elizabeth Wainwright

    June 9, 2023

    I step into the meeting room. The walls are white, the carpet is nylon, the tables are veneered, seeming to be but not being wood. The windows are where the life gets in – they frame the winter-hued oak, beech, and sycamore trees outside; trees that bend in the wind, rooted in what is but reaching for what could be.

    In 2019 I was elected to my local council, and this meeting is one of many rounds of committee meetings to discuss our budget for the next year. The council serves around eighty-five thousand residents in rural Devon, in southwest England. Each committee of councilors must make suggestions about what services and projects to fund – or not – before the whole council votes on the complete budget.

    The hot water machine boils furiously in a corner of the room. I pull my eyes from the window to the other members of my committee. The meeting has been going on for some time. The finance officer is talking to us: “What I’m looking for today, Councilors, is a steer on what you want us to cut. As you’ll see from the spreadsheet, we’re looking for about a million pounds worth of savings.”

    a chocolate and sprinkle covered donut in a box

    Photograph by victoria.

    Like other local governments across the United Kingdom, our council must trim an already-barebones budget, hollowed out by years of austerity even as inflation and economic uncertainty remain high. Meetings like the one I’m sitting in increasingly have a single bleak purpose: working out what to cut. The final budget won’t be an expression of my or anyone’s vision for the future of this place where we live. At best, it will be an exercise in keeping the status quo going for another financial year.

    Outside the window, the trees are whispering again. Now I focus on the apple trees in the surrounding orchards. There are old varieties of apples in Devon, little known elsewhere, cultivated and cared for over many generations. Soon it will be spring, pale apple blossom will appear on the trees, and it will seem like the Milky Way has descended to make its home among branches. First blossoms and then, with cultivation – with alertness, care, affection – the fruit that feeds us. I think to myself: What if we saw public decision-making in a similar light? If, as a society, we tended our political orchards well, cross-pollinating ideas and encounters, might we see new and better fruit?

    “If the boughs are bare, you know the roots of the tree are diseased.” The quote is from cleric and poet William Langland’s satirical book-length poem, Piers Plowman, written in the fourteenth century. One thread from Langland’s multi-faceted poem has lingered in my mind: even when leaders, institutions, and money fail us, we can always choose to be led by love instead.

    Piers Plowman begins with Will, the poem’s protagonist, falling asleep in the Malvern Hills and having a vision that casts the world of medieval England in a new and darker light. Standing in a field, Will can see rich and poor, nobles and merchants, priests and kings. He sees leaders who speak lies to the people to further their own end. There are people working hard to plough the land – and wealthy idlers gorging on food others have grown for them. Priests are absent from their parishes, living it up in the cities as their flocks in the countryside starve. Greed, not justice, sways the lawyers and leaders of England. The church and the aristocracy are corrupt. Even the few who speak truthfully look out only for themselves, Will notes, refusing to share the possessions given them by God. It’s a world without love, where the struggle for money and power tramples every human value.

    The limits we face are not just financial. Often, they’re limits of understanding, vision, and belief in our own ability to effect change.

    There is no hope, until the appearance of two new characters: Truth and Love. And to help us reach them, Langland gives us a guide: Piers is a plowman, a farmer, acting in the poem both as an agrarian everyman and a symbol of Christ. Before he guides us, we help him plow his half-acre of land – turning the soil both literally for food to nourish the community, and metaphorically, for truth. In both cases, Piers says, there is enough for all: new life will emerge if everyone helps tend land and place, and if we make Love our first duty. We see that self-interest is not the only way to live.  One character puts Piers’s case to Will in an especially emphatic way: “No one is ever so sick, sorrowful, or wretched that he cannot love others if he chooses.”

    Regardless of class and position and wealth, Langland reminds us, we all have a role to play in creating a better society – a role that is a heavy responsibility, too. If we do not tend the soil of love with honesty, loyalty, and care, we will reap the fruit of lovelessness. All these centuries on, Piers Plowman asks us the same question: Which vision will we choose?

    I’ve worked in charities for years and know the challenges that come with small budgets. We do need more funding for local government. But the limits we face are not just financial. Often, they’re limits of understanding, vision, and belief in our own ability to effect change. Think of Piers: “no one is so wretched that he cannot love others if he chooses.” Money is not the starting point for action. Love is.

    Love isn’t a word I hear in politics. It’s not a word people use in drafting budgets and drawing up committees. Yet I can think of few places where love is more necessary. I want to see love for people and place guiding us as much as the legal requirement to set a balanced budget. As we wrap up for the day and I head home, I look again at the trees, and think about how their branches and bright blossoms are sustained by deep, hidden roots. I wonder what else the trees could teach us – not only as individuals, but as a local government.

    If we truly believed, as Piers did, that love should lead our decisions and define our common life, might we imagine a politics and governance rooted not in power and money but in affection, imagination, and wisdom?

    There’s a chasm between the vision and the reality here, I know. But it’s a chasm that human creativity can bridge, I think. And I’ve found something of Piers the Plowman’s spirit at work in political theorists as well as poets. As a district councilor, I have looked to these people, pollinators of hope, for ways to link Piers’s vision with the practical, everyday work of local government. Here are three of those policies.

    In Piers Plowman, Nature (a depiction of God as creator) assures us that “if you love sincerely … you will never lack food and clothing as long as you live.” When he was writing Piers, Will Langland’s hope was that the institutions of medieval England, especially the Christian church, might return to Christ’s original message of love, care, and charity. What would it look like for our public institutions to “love sincerely” today, in politics, economics, and more?

    Some years ago, someone recommended I read a book by Oxford economist Kate Raworth. Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist elaborates on her 2012 Oxfam paper, A Safe and Just Space for Humanity, which received plaudits from admirers as diverse as the pope, the UN General Assembly, and Extinction Rebellion. Raworth contends that the ideal of infinite growth underpinning our economy spells ecological disaster. “A healthy economy should be designed to thrive, not grow,” Raworth writes. She suggests a new economic model, represented by the shape of a doughnut – a system that evaluates how to satisfy human needs – running from clean food and water to healthcare, dignity at work, and agency in politics whilst also recognizing the ecological limits of the natural world we depend upon for life.  This “doughnut economics” rebalances our decision-making process to put care for the planet – and for each other – first. Raworth’s ideas haven’t just stayed in the realm of idealistic theory. In Amsterdam, Brussels, Melbourne, and Berlin, local governments are exploring ways to put Raworth’s model into practice. Closer to my home, Cornwall County Council has used Raworth’s “doughnut” to take social and environmental impacts into account when making decisions. Some of the projects the council has used the “doughnut model” for include the Covid-19 recovery, the development of the Cornwall Spaceport, and the creation of cycling and walking routes. “Loving sincerely” may not be an explicit motivation of the policy, but looking at the fruits – relationship, restoration, listening, seeking what’s best for a place and its people beyond any one political party’s agenda – the commonality with Langland’s vision becomes apparent. Piers Plowman says that “love is the physician of life.” Perhaps Doughnut Economics can help us heal our system at the roots.

    What would it look like for our public institutions to “love sincerely” today, in politics, economics, and more?

    Another way public institutions can make decisions differently focuses on their purchasing power. Big institutions – in health or education, to take two examples – spend significant amounts of money every year on products and services ranging from food to laundry costs to construction projects. “Progressive procurement” proposes that this institutional spending should be informed by a broader set of values than cost-effectiveness alone. Procurement would be directed not to the lowest bidder, but to companies that can demonstrate their commitment to employing local people or paying decent wages. The best choice is no longer the cheapest or most convenient one, but the option promising the best environmental, social, and economic outcomes for everyone involved. In Cleveland, Ohio, and Preston in the United Kingdom, local authorities used progressive procurement to boost work and education opportunities for people living nearby by redirecting purchasing power to local suppliers. These authorities reversed the usual flow of money, opportunity, and power away from less prosperous communities, bringing to life Wendell Berry’s idea that “a good community, in other words, is a good local economy.”

    Piers Plowman echoes this sentiment – to love not just each other but also the land we tend and the place we live and share with others. In progressive procurement, money is directed to serve local community instead of the inverse. In this way, even a dull, behind-the-scenes process like procurement can become a practical tool to “unlock love and set free grace to comfort,” working, as Piers directs us, toward a castle where “all the buildings, halls, and chambers are roofed, not with lead but with Love.”

    Even the sterile nylon-carpeted meeting rooms of my local council could be roofed with love, I think. I have been exploring participatory budgeting – a range of mechanisms through which local residents can democratically decide how to spend part of a public budget. Developed in the 1980s in Porto Alegre, Brazil, participatory budgets built transparency within government, and boosted political engagement amongst the governed. After a decade in use, the living conditions of Porto Alegre residents on low incomes and in poverty significantly improved, even when the economy was weak. Decisions prioritized social justice over short-term economic gain. In one example, a proposal to build a new five-star hotel was turned down; a public park and convention hall were built on the site instead.

    Of course, the process has to be paid for, and relies on the goodwill of the government in power. Yet around the world, participatory budgeting is still being used today, in contexts as different as Scotland, Warsaw, and New York City. Participatory processes, of course, don’t guarantee wise budgets; critics point out that they are vulnerable to capture by vocal special interests that can block tough but necessary decisions. But that is not inevitable. By encouraging real engagement with our fellow citizens and inviting conversations grounded in mutual care, participatory budgeting reflects the conviction that our common life should be based on love, affection, and relationship over power. That’s why I see it as a tool for making decisions motivated by Piers’s exhortation to “love men truly,” – “generously sharing” not just public resources but public power. At its best, participatory budgeting reflects one of Langland’s themes: that we all share responsibility for the places we live in.

    The three approaches I’ve described here won’t change our politics, our economics, or my council’s shrinking budget overnight. But they ask us to transform something much more fundamental: the way we think. They call, as Langland did, for a mindset shift to see love for people and place as not just a nice idea but a catalyst for practical, much-needed change.

    In her speech at the 2014 National Book Awards, the author Ursula K. Le Guin remarked: “We live in capitalism; its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” That change often begins, Le Guin adds, in art, and especially “the art of words.” I think William Langland knew this when he wrote Piers Plowman, and called for us to replace lovelessness with justice, charity, and truth. The tools we need to begin that transformation are within our grasp, if only we have the courage to take them up. With Langland guiding us, we can look up from the spreadsheets, and go out from our meeting rooms to listen to our neighbors, remembering what public governance is there for in the first place. As members of living communities, our task is to tend the spaces and land we hold in common, to ensure decisions that affect every one of us are made in a spirit of mutual care, reflecting Piers the Plowman’s dream of a future where “Love shall rule over [our] land as [we] have always wished.” Then even the airless meeting rooms of local government can become places where, rooted in what is, we reach out together, guided by love, for what could be.

    Contributed By Elizabeth Wainwright Elizabeth Wainwright

    Elizabeth is a writer, hillwalking guide, and coach. Her background is in international development and local politics.

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