What is the value of a human life? In homeland security circles this is not a question that gets much attention. And when the subject of human value does come up, it’s usually waved off as being alternately unmeasurable or sufficiently well-measured already.
We would argue that explicitly valuing a human life in any homeland security risk analysis is a worthy undertaking because of the need to ascertain potential consequences, which usually include both fatalities and economic losses. Combining these disparate consequence types into a single metric requires converting one type to the other, using an ‘exchange rate’ known as the value of human life.
Multiple consequence types are often scaled, weighted and combined in a process that implies a human value. But it’s one that is never really acknowledged – let alone explained. (In 2006, for instance, two groups within DHS implicitly assigned per-person values of $100,000 and $12 million respectively in two separate but simultaneous risk analysis efforts!)
While the existence of an explicit dollar value would avert such internal inconsistencies, assigning such a value is not straightforward. There are three common approaches:
- Legal precedents (i.e., awards in wrongful death cases);
- Studies of personal preference; and
- Policy direction.
In legal cases, value is often based on the loss of a deceased individual’s expected future earnings. But this approach has limited applicability in homeland security because: (a) it is designed to value a specific individual’s life, not a generic human being’s; and (b) it raises questions about how to value groups of people with lower-than-average incomes, such as children, the elderly, the poor and the disabled.
Preference studies, by contrast, measure either people’s willingness to pay to reduce risk (or prolong life), or the sums required to induce them to accept additional risk. In a common example, one can usually trade off a higher risk of death on the job for a higher wage. People’s (cost) sensitivity to small changes in the probabilities of death, extrapolated out to a 100-percent probability and expressed in dollars, is called the Value of a Statistical Life. The VSL is commonly used in making regulatory decisions in some federal agencies, such as the EPA and Dept. of Energy, and it has its proponents in DHS as well.
One problem with wage studies is that in most jobs the risk of death is a very minor factor compared with other factors. Therefore the resulting VSLs can vary wildly, with values typically in the $5- to $10-million range. Second, VSLs mainly probe the price sensitivity of those most willing to work in high-risk jobs, and the values thus derived are therefore not from a representative sample of the U.S. population. Since homeland security risk analyses are meant to be universally applicable, one may view the VSL as more of a lower boundary than an actual value of a typical human life.
Which leaves us with the third method: policy direction. This has been the most commonly employed approach in homeland security, but the justifications have not always been clearly articulated. The advantage of making the value of human life an explicit policy decision is that it places both responsibility and accountability for the decision with the decision-maker. The other two approaches could introduce significant systematic errors if used in the wrong way and, more problematically, could create doubts in the minds of policy-makers and the public by separating the responsibility for calculating the value from the accountability for defending it.
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