Stuart Chase

Brief life of a public thinker: 1888-1985

On a chilly autumn day in 1911, Stuart Chase entered the Boston Public Library and, finding a seat in the economics section, composed a personal credo. On the eve of his twenty-third year, he wrote of his inner drive:

So many are the roads and lanes and byways that branch from this open portal. I look back and see the straight, calm thoroughfare that has led me here. I look forward and stand dazed and blinded before the myriad ways that lead to ultimate darkness or light. Now I must choose my own path... from among the many and follow it in all faith and trust until experience bids me seek another. The world always turns aside to let one pass who knows where they are going.

He found and followed that path. His life and work won him international acclaim as a critic of unprincipled corporate practices, an innovator in consumer protection, a promoter of altruistic economic policies, an advocate for adult learning and mass public education, and an activist for responsive government and ecological stewardship. He advised presidents and interpreted contemporary issues for ordinary men and women in 35 books and hundreds of pamphlets and articles, seeking to help people improve their lives. True to his proper New England background, Chase considered these works the only record his life needed.

He attended MIT briefly and then Harvard, graduating cum laude in 1910. After several years as a C.P.A. in his father's firm, he followed his credo by shifting from public accounting to public accountability: in 1917 he joined the Federal Trade Commission. There he worked to hold corporations to his own high standards. When his study of the meatpacking industry revealed corporate accounting irregularities, congressional Republicans (including then senator and future president Warren G. Harding) successfully pressured the commission to fire him in 1920.

His credo enabled Chase to see this setback as a call to shift focus again, from public accountability to public responsibility. He began a collaboration with economic philosopher Thorstein Veblen to bring greater efficiency and enhanced managerial and fiscal integrity to government and industry. These themes took center stage in his early book The Tragedy of Waste (1925), which attracted worldwide attention for its scrutiny of modern industrial systems and corporate advertising. Next came the 1927 bestseller Your Money's Worth, written with fellow consumer-advocacy pioneer F.J. Schlink. In 1929 the two men founded Consumers Research, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, the precursor to Consumers Union and its publication Consumer Reports. Chase worked hard for what he called "consumer literacy" in response "to the confusion of consumers beset by an ever more clamorous mass media." (More than 40 years later, another Republican president, Richard Nixon, explicitly acknowledged this groundbreaking work in his 1969 Special Message to the Congress on Consumer Protection.)

Meanwhile Chase's growing influence had attracted the attention of Franklin D. Roosevelt '04, then governor of New York. The men first met in 1931, shortly before the publication of Chase's book A New Deal. FDR made use of its economic arguments and made a "new deal" the focal point of his 1932 speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination. Though not a Brains Truster, Chase later served in FDR's "kitchen cabinet"; in 1937, the president told Chase's father that his son was "teaching the American people more about economics than all the others combined." Others concurred: in 1942 a magazine writer noted, "[H]e perhaps more than any other one person has made economics interesting and understandable to everyday people like you and me."

A steadfast believer in adult education and lifelong learning, which he considered essential for participatory democracy, Chase was a noteworthy defender of the common citizen's aptitude for understanding vital civic questions. Across seven decades and 49 states, he mesmerized lecture audiences with disarmingly simple and inspiring insights into the social issues that were his passion. His writing also crossed disciplines, finding connections among disparate themes to challenge his readers, as in the provocative "Bombs, Babies, and Bulldozers," which integrated thermonuclear war, overpopulation, and destruction of the environment for the Saturday Review in January 1960.

Chase had delighted in, while taking very seriously, his role as an interpreter of FDR's groundbreaking programs. But as the Depression gave way to world war and the Cold War, his concerns broadened yet again: he came to see himself first and foremost as a world citizen. In a May 1961 speech to a Soviet-American conference on disarmament and peace, he declared, "Along with the personal view and the national view, we must cling to the world view....Today the citizen can only save his home, and his country, by helping to save mankind." In following that path, he faced up to many of the challenges we confront today.

Chase's grandson William Alan Hodson '67, a human ecologist and professor at Landmark College, and John M. Carfora, Ed.M. '93, director of research and sponsored programs at Boston College, are writing a book about Chase.

Courtesy of the Chase family
Chase relaxes at home in Connecticut with Boots, the cat, in 1953.

 

 

 

Read more articles by: John M. Carfora

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