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Markus Stocker

Between information technology and environmental science with a flair for economics, the clarinet, and the world of soups and salads.

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Awhile ago an Italian friend sent me an email referring to the upcoming abrogative referendum held in Italy on 12 June and 13 June 2011, which I had not heard of before. The referendum includes questions on the privatisation of water services, a return to nuclear energy, and criminal procedure (specifically immunity of the Prime Minister from prosecution). I consider the yes to say no to special legal treatment for certain people obvious. Thus, I’m discussing only the first two areas, to which my friend votes yes to say no, too.

Nuclear energy is a hot topic in Europe these days. Following Fukushima, the irrational backlash. Nuclear power is considered unsafe, though living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant for a year has about the same radiation dose as eating a banana and is about a third the dose absorbed by living within 50 miles of a coal power plant for a year; though particulate matter emitted through combustion in energy production is a much larger risk to public health than radiation through (functioning and malfunctioning) nuclear power plants. Largely as a reaction to public pressure, the Swiss Federal Council recently voted against building new nuclear power plants. The last of the five Swiss plants will be decommissioned in about 20 years. Germany decided to close all of its nuclear plants by 2022. Italy is about to decide whether or not to “definitively close the nuclear adventure and to open a new energy season”. Meanwhile, “Sarkozy sees opportunities in German exit of nuclear energy” and the Finns are leading the way of permanent nuclear waste storage, for the next 100,000 years and beyond the next ice age—which is, at least, a fascinating thought experiment. All this is, of course, a gamble. There are opportunities, such as technological innovations propelled by redirecting capital resources towards R&D, and there are pitfalls looming on the horizon, such as the potential need to expand fossil fuel-based electricity production or the potential irony of having to import nuclear energy from other countries to meet future energy demand.

The Italian committee against the privatisation of water services marks the death of the fountain. Their slogan: water is a public good. It is important to note that the question is not whether to privatise water as a resource but, rather, water services, which includes, for instance, water purification. The Italian committee against the privatisation of water services nostalgically recalls the good old Italian fontanella, which was “public by predisposition”. Those times are gone, argues the committee, if the “management of public water goes into private hands”, I suppose the argument goes that, compared to the government, (multinational) for-profit corporations can only deliver services of inferior quality. Given the utterly dysfunctional Italian government, I wonder, trust in private enterprise must be underwater, despite that their mobile phone reliably rings upon a call. Because access to clean water for purposes such as drinking, cooking and cleaning is not as immediate as access to other fundamental resources such as, for instance, breathable air, it is clear that there exists a demand for access to clean water. This demand is met by a corresponding supply. I suppose, the question now is whether supply ought to be “guaranteed” by public or private enterprise. Of course, the anti-corporatist will say public and the free-market economist has only one answer, too, namely private, with the argument of market efficiency. The answer may depend on the problem’s context. In a country with a functioning government, public management of water resources may lead to a service that considers, for instance, ethical values or externalities, even though the cost of the service is beyond what the market would deem efficient. However, “in poor countries with private investments in the water sector, more people have access to water than in those without such investments” as “superior competence, better incentives and better access to capital for investment have allowed private distributors to enhance both the quality of the water and the scope of its distribution”.

Whatever individual beliefs and views, I hope the Italians get out and vote, a right we the people should be allowed to make use of more often.