Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics and University Professor at Columbia University, is a former chief economist of the World Bank (1997-2000), chair of the US President’s Council of Economic Advisers, and co-chair of the High-Level Commission on Carbon Prices. He is a member of the Independent Commission for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation and was lead author of the 1995 IPCC Climate Assessment.
NEW YORK – The mortgage debacle in the United States has raised deep questions about “the rule of law,” the universally accepted hallmark of an advanced, civilized society. The rule of law is supposed to protect the weak against the strong, and ensure that everyone is treated fairly. In America in the wake of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, it has done neither.
Part of the rule of law is security of property rights – if you owe money on your house, for example, the bank can’t simply take it away without following the prescribed legal process. But in recent weeks and months, Americans have seen several instances in which individuals have been dispossessed of their houses even when they have no debts.
To some banks, this is just collateral damage: millions of Americans – in addition to the estimated four million in 2008 and 2009 – still have to be thrown out of their homes. Indeed, the pace of foreclosures would be set to increase – were it not for government intervention. The procedural shortcuts, incomplete documentation, and rampant fraud that accompanied banks’ rush to generate millions of bad loans during the housing bubble has, however, complicated the process of cleaning up the ensuing mess.
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