There are lots of ways we value a human life - monetarily.
The EPA uses a value of $9.1 million (2010 dollars - under Bush they used $6.8 million).
The FDA says $7.9 Million (up from $5 million in 2008, under Bush)
The Transportation Department uses $6 million now ($3.5 million under Bush)
Lumber companies apparently value their employees life at $1 million. (Source)
The Department of Homeland Security seems to think they are more important, claiming that preventing terror deaths is worth far more than normal deaths. Estimates range from as low as $12 million to an incredible $180 million spent to save a single life. They need to make this argument, because frankly, the machines and methods they use are incredibly expensive and provide little to no benefit.
We think that valuing a human life is a bit macabre. Could someone kill a person on purpose and pay this amount to get off? No. So they call it the "Value of a Statistical Life" instead of a human life, and then abbreviate it to VSL to add even more emotional distance.
Why do these VSL numbers vary so much?
Part of the changes are mere inflation (they are set at different times), but quite a bit is simple philosophical differences. Liberals apparently value human life more than Conservatives (except against terrorists). We think corporations should have to pay more money to ensure our safety.
A complicating issue is 'Quality of Life'. Frankly, a life as a blind, deaf, quadriplegic, has a lot less quality than mine. If someone were to blind me, make me deaf, and cut off my arms/legs I would definitely demand compensation, even if what they did was accidental. Moreover, it is not just physical. The quality of life of a homeless person with no education is lower than what I have. Similarly, I hope my quality of life is greater than that of someone with severe, untreated Schizophrenia.
Lawyers argue that if you get paid a certain amount for maiming, etc. then killing a maimed person means they only owe the difference between a healthy person and the maimed award. While this seems particularly heartless, it makes more sense if the same event caused both - with the death delayed. That is, you get shot and are paralyzed and they can't remove the bullet. You get a payment, then 1 year later, the bullet moves and you die. The insurance company claims they already paid you, so your family (and their lawyer) can only get the difference.
But if that logic works, than you can argue it applies all the time - even if the maiming had nothing to do with the death. Age is a similar issue - the older you are the less life you have left. But we won't don't use quality of life or age to lower the cost equivalent of a human life. Corporation making hip replacements are not allowed to use a value of only $1 million because mostly old people get hip replacements. Nor do we want drug companies to use a value of only $1 million because their drug helps blind people. We expect companies to treat all (regardless of age, health, sanity with the same regard for life. On the other hand, most of us are willing to let someone dieing of cancer to take medicines with higher side affects, but this at heart the same as paying more than for a healthy person than for a sick person.
To complicate everything, sometimes compensation for injuries will cost more than a human life. That is, 24 hour care, for life, may cost $100,000 a year. That's not counting medication, equipment, and surgery. A 3 year old child with a nasty brain cancer that ends up paralyzed can easily end up costing 20 million dollars over his life. Of course, the more expensive the treatment the less likely they will live that long. But we expect them to pay millions for initial treatment plus hundreds of thousand each year.
I don't have a good solution for the quality of life and injury issues. But I am offended by the variance in VSL values used. We should need a single official VSL value, set at about 8 million, with automatic inflation increases. Require all government agencies to use that number - the EPA, the FDA, the Department of Transportation, and yes, Homeland Security.
This takes the fear and illogic out of the TSA's silly, foolish use of money. It also takes cheapness out of the Transportation Department's value. Because honestly, I can't see how dieing in a car accident/plane accident is less bad than dieing in a terrorist attack. Yes, the terrorist attack makes for scarier news shows, but we shouldn't let media appeal affect how much we pay.
Consistency makes for a better argument.