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22 February 2012

In the news: Putin’s uncertain use of the word “luxury”. But can any word be used with total precision?

Prime Minister and current presidential hopeful, V.V. Putin, has talked in public, as part of his campaign for supreme office in Russia, of taxing “luxury”. Presumably he thinks that will endear him to those in the country who do not live in luxury. But what, exactly, does that word mean?
     Chatting last night with an American friend who is a prominent Moscow patent lawyer, it occurred to me that though vagueness is lamentable, precision in any language other than mathematics is impossible. Language is, after all, just a set of conventions for evoking intended sense.
     What does the Prime Minister think of as “luxury” when he is sitting in the study of his modest property at Novo-Ogaryovo deciding which oligarch most deserves to be taxed? And is his idea of luxury the same as that of “prestigious consumption”, which he has also talked about? When does simple consumption tip into over-consumption? Luxury for me, in the simple opulence of my панельный дворец in Khimki, can often mean nothing more than lying quietly in a deep, hot bath with a mug of strong tea and a good book. For a hippopotamus living on the banks of the Limpopo, it might be something similar, only without the tea and the book. But would the Prime Minister consider either of those to be “prestigious consumption”?
     It is entirely possible that he does since, as is well-known, he was born in poverty. The word “luxury” might still convey to Mr Putin something similar to that which the plutocratic Yorkshiremen described in Monty Python's famous “Chateau de Chasselais” sketch. One lived with his extended family in a hole in the ground covered with a tarpaulin; one in a shoe-box in the middle of a road; and a third inhabited a rubbish-tip and was woken up every morning by having a load of rotting fish dumped all over him. “Looxureh!” the fourth declared contemptuously. He had really had it tough, having lived for three months in a rolled-up newspaper in a septic tank.
     Different people, it would seem, have different ideas of what constitutes luxury. We cannot be sure of what Mr Putin means by the term, or indeed what the voters in non-luxury Russia understand by it. Yet if taxation is to be based on law, some sort of generally accepted definition has to be arrived at. The alternative is injustice or corruption, or both.
     If precision is important, it is alarming to read that Mr Putin recently wrote: “Owners of expensive houses [what is “expensive” in this context?] and cars [ditto] should pay more tax [than whom? than when?].” How vague is that! Some commentators have criticised the Prime Minister’s proposal as, in the end, coming down to nothing more than: “Hey, moneybags! Give us some cash or we’ll take it from you!”
     But is that entirely fair? How far can objections to vagueness be pushed? Precise meaning is very hard to achieve in any language, as the language of patent lawyers shows. It comes closer than any other to precision since so much money depends on it. The longest patent applications can run to many thousands of pages. I asked my lawyer friend if he knew of a very short one. This is what he dug up. It is a claim cxoncerning a new form of mechanical pencil. See if you can visualise it after reading the whole text:

A mechanical pencil, comprising: a tubular body having an end-to-end axial channel; a hollow bottom cap at a bottom end of said tubular body having a top opening and a bottom opening; a tip element positioned inside said bottom cap and protruding downward through said bottom opening of said bottom cap; a clamping means extending from said axial channel of said tubular body to said tip element, said clamping means having two clamping pieces laterally joined to form a cylindrical body having an end-to-end axial channel and two opposing indentations on the circumference of said cylindrical body, two balls inside said two indentations, and a spring between said cylindrical body and said tip element, and a tube into which said cylindrical body is threaded; a sliding means inside said axial channel of said tubular body above said clamping means, said sliding means having an end-to-end axial channel capable of holding a lead; and a top cap at a top end of said tubular body, said top cap having a through hole at a top end of said top cap for threading said lead into said axial channel of said sliding means; wherein said balls of said clamping means is confined by said tube of said clamping means to squeeze said clamping pieces to hold said lead; when said top cap is depressed, said spring is compressed and said balls roll into to a section of said tube which has a larger aperture to release said clamping pieces so that said lead is able to drop; when said top cap is released, said clamping pieces are pushed back into said tube by said spring so that said balls roll out of said section and again squeeze said clamping pieces to hold said lead; when said lead is not extended out of said tip element and said tip element is pressed, said spring is compressed and a segment of said lead is advanced into said tip element; and, when said tip element is released, said spring pushes said tip element downward and, due to the friction between said tip element and said lead, said segment of said lead is pulled downward by said tip element as well.

Well? What exactly is it that is being described? Believe it or not, this text is the fruit of the labour of some of the most highly-paid, highly-trained and highly-sought after writers of precision prose in English anywhere on the planet. Yet it is harder to understand than Vladimir Putin's concepts of luxury and prestigious consumption.
     As my friend and I sipped our champagne and nibbled goujons of cod with home-made (see yesterday) tartare sauce, he quoted from memory the bit about the “top cap at top end of said tubular body with said balls rolling into said tube so that said lead drops when said cap is released and a segment of said lead is released into said cap element.”
     When I stopped laughing, it occurred to me not only that intelligible language can never be entirely precise but, more worryingly, that we were having the conversation in circumstances where we ought, on any reasonable definition of the general standard of living in said Russia, to be potentially subject to said tax on said prestigious consumption which headed, as the said evening progressed, from said ordinary luxury to towards said over-consumption. Enough said.

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