What Bernie Madoff's $50 billion Ponzi scheme and other upper-class scandals of the season tell us: Staying rich is not as easy as it looks. Sometimes it requires incredibly dumb and desperate acts.

Madoff took money from new investors to pay fictitiously high returns to existing investors, a scheme that was bound to fail at some point.

Marc Dreier, a lawyer arrested for an alleged $380 million hedge-fund flimflam, walked into the office of a pension fund, commandeered a conference room, and impersonated a fund official he'd just met.

Dina Wein-Reis, a socialite who lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side, has been accused of bilking Fortune 500 companies out of discounted goods meant for charities, which she then resold for a purported $20 million profit. She is being prosecuted in Indiana, but is trying to get the case moved to New York so she can care for her parents and children, who, her lawyers say, are sick over the accusations.

Let's get this straight: Wein-Reis does not want to face charges in Indiana, where some of the companies she's said to have defrauded are based, because her actions have made her family sick and she needs to take care of them. It's not quite the same as the apocryphal fellow who kills his parents and throws himself at the mercy of the court as an orphan, but it's close.

What do these cases have in common? Wealthy people, faced with the prospect of becoming even remotely less wealthy, do incomprehensibly dumb things in an attempt to preserve their fortunes. Their accusers often talk about greed as a motive. But fear is a far more powerful one — an insanity-provoking emotion that more plausibly explains the sheer goofiness of their schemes. How did they ever think they'd get away with it? At last we know the real way in which the rich are different.