Bernie Madoff's lawyer, Ira Lee Sorkin, signaled to a judge today that his client would plead guilty to charges, which would carry a life sentence, of running a $50 billion Ponzi scheme.

The only gallows humor in this dark, inhuman crime and its inevitable consequence: The prosecutors are also seeking $170 billion in restitution. Don't they understand the nature of a Ponzi scheme — that the money's gone? That it was never really there to begin with? Perhaps the outsized figure helped government lawyers arrive at a suitable calculation of Madoff's punishment under arcane sentencing rules. But people are already saying that the $50 billion crime Madoff confessed to on the night he was arrested was a grandiose figure he made up to inflate his own importance.

Yes, billions went into Madoff's magical mystery money machine, and only millions have been found by the trustee overseeing the dissolution of his business. But where does this $170 billion exist? It's a puzzle Madoff can contemplate for the rest of his life, behind bars.

The prosecution's outline of charges against Madoff:

Government's Pimentel Notice to Bernard Madoff