In their debate last night, President Carter and Ronald Reagan both cited streams of statistics that may have sounded contradictory, but were usually two sides of the same stories, both accurate. However, both candidates, especially Reagan, did fudge in another respect:
They glossed over past actions or statements that viewers of the debate might have wanted to know to judge their debating points.
Reagan, for example, ignored his own past positions on making Social Security voluntary, dropping the strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT II) and on the usefulness of trying to prevent other countries from acquiring nuclear weapons. For his part, Carter blamed presidents Nixon and Ford for cuts in their defense budgets that were actually made by Democratic Congresses.
In the realm of statistics, Carter said 9 million new jobs had been created in his administration. Reagan said 8 million Americans were not out of work, including 2 million who lost their jobs this year.
Both things are true. There were about 87.5 million jobs in this country in 1976, the year of the last presidential election. There are nearly 97 million now. But the number of jobs has not increased as fast as the number of people wanting them, so the unemployment rate has also risen, most markedly in the recession that began in earnest last winter. There were 6.1 million people unemployed last December, 5.9 percent of the work force.There were 8.2 million out of work in July, 7.8 percent. Those figures have since receded slightly.
As with unemployment, so with inflation. Reagan said that inflation was now running at 12.7 percent. Carter said that in the third quarter of this year it has been 7 percent.
Both are right. Consumer prices have risen 12.7 percent in the last year, and rose at an annual rate of 12.7 percent last month. But in the last three months the annual rate was 7 percent. There are often fluctuations like these; most economists think the underlying rate in the country is now 8 or 9 percent.
There were similar seeming contradictions in what the two men said about defense spending. Carter claimed that defense spending fell in seven of the eight Nixon-Ford years before he took office, while Reagan said Carter sharply cut the projected five-year defense budget he inherited from Gerald Ford.
Defense spending did fall in seven of those eight years, not in dollars -- the defense budget rose from $75.8 billion to $105.2 billion -- but in so-called "real" terms, after allowing for inflation. In 1972 dollars, defense outlays fell from $81.2 billion in fiscal 1971 to $66.5 billion in fiscal 1977. It rose the next year to $66.6 billion. But Carter did chop back the Ford defense budget to which he fell heir, and did, as Reagan said, shelve several large proposed weapons systems, including the B1 bomber.
Moreover, as Reagan also observed, it was a Democratic Congress that passed final judgment on the defense budget in the Nixon-Ford years, and often cut it below the amounts those presidents requested.
In the debate as throughout the campaign, Carter and Reagan clashed on taxes. Reagan said that the federal tax burden would rise $86 billion next year, under Carter's present planning. Tax receipts would indeed rise that much, according to the most recent projections by the Senate Budget Committee. This is partly due to scheduled increases in Social Security taxes next Jan. 1, partly due to inflation that pushes wage earners to higher brackets each year, and partly due to the "windfall profits" tax on oil, which Congress passed this year at Carter's urging. The projected tax burden -- receipts as a percentage of gross national product -- would be nearly 22 percent, the highest since World War II. And Reagan rightly said Carter's proposed tax "cuts" next year would not offset these increases. He left out this other fact: his proposed tax cuts would not, either.
On energy, Carter observed that U.S. oil imports have fallen by roughly a third in the last year. He claimed credit for this.What he failed to mention is that, first, imports last year were unusually high as the oil companies tried to rebuild their reserves after the gasoline lines of spring and summer, and second, imports this year are unusually low in large part because of the recession.
Nuclear weapons and efforts to control them were subjects for repeated disagreements between Carter and Reagan.
At one point, Carter quoted Reagan as saying that nuclear nonproliferation -- the effort to prevent non-nuclear countries from acquiring nuclear weapons -- was "none of our business." Soon afterward, Reagan denied ever having made the statement.
However, according to The New York Times of last Feb. 1, Reagan, in Jacksonville, Fla., "indicated that he believed the United States should not stand in the way of foreign countries' developing their own nuclear weapons, saying, 'I just don't think it's any of our business.'"
The two candidates also offered differing interpretations of SALT II, and different versions of their past statements on nuclear arms control. Reagan argued that the SALT II negotiated by the Carter administration was a substantial departure from a treaty "90 percent" completed during the Ford administration earlier.
In fact the Carter version of SALT II was based closely on the treaty that predecessor Ford and Henry Kissinger had negotiated. It did contain several changes that the Carter administration said were improvements but which Kissinger said were not. However, in Senate testimony Kissinger did not challenge the proposition that Carter's SALT II was close to his own.
Carter accused Reagan of seeking to "scrap" SALT II. Reagan denied this, saying he simply wanted to replace it with a better treaty. Reagan denied that he had ever called for "nuclear superiority," although during this campaign he has repeatedly recommended overall U.S. military superiority, which has has termed "a margin of safety."
On another foreign policy issue, Reagan appeared to accuse the Carter administration of aiding "in a number of cases . . . a revolutionary overthow [of regimes in other countries] which results in complete totalitariansim instead for those people." He cited no examples explicitly, though he apparently had Iran in mind. There appear to be no other cases that would fit this description during the Carter years.
Carter said in the debate that Reagan some years ago advocated making Social Security taxes voluntary, which experts agree could cause the whole system to unravel, and also said Reagan opposed Medicare when Congress was at work on the original bill in the 1960s.
Reagan claimed that the only voluntary feature he ever recommended for Social Security was a provision to allow every contributor to the system to name his own beneficiary. However, Reagan is on record as having gone further than that on several occasions in the 1960s, and even as recently as 1976, by suggesting that those who can provide for their own old age ought to be excused from Social Security taxes.
On Medicare, Reagan said that while he opposed the bill Congress passed to set up the program, he favored an alternative which he said would have met "the same problem" of providing health care for the elderly. Congress ultimately rejected that alternative bill, favored by the medical profession, as inadequate.