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Free tuition? What is Sanders smoking?

Hiaasen
Hiaasen

Free college for everyone!

That’s one of the big, bold ideas from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and it always brings a roar at his campaign rallies.

Let’s tax those greedy guys on Wall Street to pay for free undergraduate tuition for anyone attending a public college or university.

It won’t ever happen, as Sanders well knows, but it’s a good way to energize young voters and their parents. College has become brutally expensive, and too many graduates spend years struggling to pay off their student loans.

Is it cynical to promote a solution that sounds so simple yet has virtually no chance of being embraced by this Congress, or even a Congress controlled by Democrats?

Sanders’ free-college plan is the liberal equivalent of Donald Trump’s wall along the U.S.-Mexican border – a crowd-rousing campaign promise that is utter fantasy.

On his website, Sanders offers more financing details than Trump ever does, but the calculations are wishful thinking. A “Robin Hood tax” on Wall Street investment houses and hedge funds would supposedly raise $47 billion of the estimated $70 billion that it now costs students to attend public colleges and universities.

Sanders says the remaining $23 billion would come from the individual states themselves. Seriously? In what bizarre parallel universe would 50 state legislatures (30 of them controlled by Republicans) raise or redistribute taxes to subsidize this program?

In addition to eliminating undergraduate tuition and fees at public colleges and universities, Sanders says, his College for All Act would lower the interest rates on student loans to pre-2006 levels. It would also let indebted students refinance at better terms, and it would expand the federal work-study program that offers them part-time employment.

These are lofty reforms that appeal strongly to families facing the daunting prospect of long-term college debt. The problem is reality, which is harsh and complicated.

Given Wall Street’s enormous clout in Washington, D.C., there’s a better chance of the House and Senate legalizing heroin than approving Bernie’s proposed “speculation fee” on all stock and bond trades. But, for the sake of debate, let’s say his Robin Hood tax passes.

The revenues raised from it would fluctuate with the stock market, leaving uncertain the amount available annually to pay for public college tuition. More important, the prospect of free tuition would attract many more young people to enroll in state schools, hiking the cost of the program way beyond Sanders’ $70 billion model.

Still, his campaign says “it has been estimated” that the Wall Street tax would not only fund college tuition but “could also be used to create millions of jobs and rebuild the middle class of this country.”

Exactly who made that estimation, and what were they smoking?

Grand and unattainable promises are a staple of politics, but both Sanders and Trump advertise themselves as anti-establishment mavericks, the straight shooters. Both of them are running on hype.

There will be no wall on the Mexican border. There will be no free college for all Americans.

Movements start with big and improbable ambitions, but to succeed they need a political pathway.

Sanders’ rhetoric of outrage is thrilling to young Democrats, just as Trump’s bellicose bluster fuels so many disgruntled white Republicans.

Maybe the only way to bring everyone together is to pay college students to build that wall.

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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