Carl Hiaasen

Free tuition? Bernie, what are you smoking?

Free college tuition for all Americans is a standard campaign pledge by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Free college tuition for all Americans is a standard campaign pledge by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. AP

Free college for everyone!

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

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

It won’t ever happen, as Bernie 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?

Bernie’s 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.

Mexico will never pay for that wall, and as president Trump would have no means — or constitutional authority — to build it on his own. Still, folks go wild when he spouts off about the silly thing at his rallies.

Bernie gets the same reaction to his free-college pitch.

On his website he 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.

Bernie 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, Bernie 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, 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 tuitions.

More importantly, the prospect of free tuition would attract many more young people to enroll in state schools, hiking the cost of the program way beyond Bernie’s $70 billion model.

Still, his campaign says “it has been estimated” that the Wall Street tax would not only fund college tuitions, 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 Bernie and the Big Orange Trumpster advertise themselves as anti-establishment mavericks, the straight shooters.

Both of them are running on hype.

Their most hardcore fans have in common a fervor that’s doomed to be deflated.

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

The more jaded primary voters know this, and some of them don’t care.

They’re supporting Trump or Sanders mainly as a show of disgust with the system, or because they like the men’s personalities.

No matter how far-fetched, the concept of a border wall or free college has a gut appeal. For the candidates it’s an easy way to get cheers, railing against the immigration mess or the obscene excesses of Wall Street.

The fact is, no president can tackle those problems without Congress and the courts, or even begin to try. Movements start with big and improbable ambitions, but to succeed they need a political pathway.

Bernie’s rhetoric of outrage is thrilling to young Democrats and others who find Hillary Clinton totally uninspiring, 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.

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