A trillion bucks? Says who?

I read a tweet today claiming that the US has spent $1,350,000,000,000 spent on war in Afghanistan & Iraq — that’s $1.3 trillion U.S. dollars, and that this money would be sufficient to wipe out world poverty for ten years.

Pretty provocative thought.

If you’ve read this blog before, you can probably guess my first reaction:  “How do you know that?”  These are exactly the sort of “facts” that get tossed about with abandon with no concern whatsoever for whether there’s any truth to them, and in my opinion, that really doesn’t help make our public debate any more productive.

So, then, how might we verify this number?  At a bare minimum, we’d like to see it from multiple sources.  So, here are some of the top google hits for “how much money spent on war in afghanistan and iraq?”:

Do you know how much a Trillion Dollars is?

Do you know how much a Trillion Dollars is? (Photo credit: ClaraDon)

In this case, one big bias remains — all these results were found via Google.  Now, I love Google as much as the next guy — maybe more — but if you’re going to be responsible about understanding where facts are coming from, you can never forget the potential for them to add bias.  For what it’s worth, in this case, I checked Bing.com for the same question and found similar (but not identical) results.

Next up: interpretation.

Reaction #1 — I think we know where the $1.3 trillion quote came from.

Reaction #2 — There’s a phenomenally huge variance here.

Reaction #3 — It doesn’t matter.  In my opinion, when you start looking at numbers this big, it’s pretty hard to wrap your mind around the difference between $1 trillion and $5 trillion.  In this case, it certainly appears that a number North of $1 trillion is credible, and I think that’s probably precise enough for most of the arguments that are likely to ensue as a result.  Just remember that it’s pretty hard to place any real precision on this number based on the brief research we just did — there’s still a pretty huge spread of claimed dollar amounts across the five sources we dug up above.

I’ll leave the actual argument about whether this chunk of money has been well-spent for another time or another venue.  My point here is that if we claim to be responsible citizens and responsible decision-makers, we need to be critical of numbers like this.  Tonight, we’ll watch the first Presidential debate between Obama and Romney, and you can bet there will be numbers tossed out.  Make sure you listen critically — to both sides — because you can’t form any meaningful opinions based on shoddy facts.

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