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Mccain Refines His Tax Argument. It's Still Wrong.

Sometime in the last ten days or so, John McCain distilled his argument about taxes to this line: "Senator Obama is running to punish the successful. I’m running to make everyone successful."

It's not a new concept. The idea that higher taxes will suffocate the economy has been a staple of conservative widsom for a long time now. But for most of the campaign, McCain wasn't really focusing on the link between higher taxes and (supposedly) lower growth. Instead, he was focusing on the moral outrage of the government taking people's money. In other words, the big problem with taxing Joe the Plumber was what it meant for Joe, rather than what it meant for the economy as a whole.

I don't mean to diminish the former argument. Nobody likes paying taxes. And while I don't find it outrageous that government would raise taxes to pay for programs that serve important functions, I realize lots of people disagree.

But I suspect that, given the preoccupation with the economy, voters might have responded better to McCain's attacks on taxes if he'd been emphasizing this explicit link to the growth all along. Instead, they mostly heard McCain talking about taxes while Obama was talking about jobs. The latter won.

(Or so I'm hypothesizing. I'll check the exit polls after Election Day to see if there's any proof of this.)

On the other hand, now that McCain is putting this argument front-and-center, I think it's worth reminding everybody why it's wrong on the merits. No, you don't want to raise taxes substantially in the middle of a recession. But, over the long run, there's no reason to believe higher taxes--particularly, though not exclusively, higher taxes on the wealthy--will necessarly slow growth.

Remember, even partial rollback of the Bush tax cuts--which is what Obama has proposed--would leave overall tax rates lower than they were during the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president. And the economy did pretty well then.

And if you look abroad, you'll find the Scandinavian countries have been doing quite well over the last few years, despite tax rates than reach 50 percent. The reason? Those high taxes finance programs like universal health insurance, universal day care, plus generous unemployment coupled with real job training--programs that make voters more willing to tolerate the dislocations and volatility that comes with the global economy.

I've written about this "flexicurity" model before. And among those who have written or said favorable things about it are a number of people in Obama's circle of advisers. (Berekely economist Laura Tyson is the first who come to mind.)

That doesn't mean Obama or his advisers have a secret plan to turn the U.S. into Scandinavia. But it does mean they understand that raising taxes moderately to fight climate change (through a cap-and-trade system) or to finance universal health insurance makes sense. And that's a good thing.

--Jonathan Cohn