The fact that so many links are really swaps, and the fact that links that work can be purchased, is the proof that links on the Internet are often not "real votes".
Do I think it's sad testimony? Yes and no. I live in the real world, not the one that I wish it would be. Links from some sites have monetary value. Businesses exist to make money and will often do what works or is easy, as opposed to what is right in an ideal world. That's just how it is.
Sorry, but I don't see why you wouldn't want to have that sort of perspective in this thread. The title of this thread is "Linking Strategies - What works ... in my humble opinion." I've given you my opinion.
Ok, but who's going to go first? If a webmaster believes that this clutter has monetary value, and that webmaster is fighting hard to make a living, then will that webmaster remove what seems to be producing income, in order to help make the Internet a better place?
How about if you are locked in a competitive battle with another website that engages in these "bad" practices? You can do it too and beat them, or do what's "right" and be beaten by them. What will you choose? Looking more like a directory has value in PR and traffic for an ecommerce site and that has motivated many to add lots of "helpful" links.
The problem will solve itself eventually, but not by acts of selflessness on the part of webmasters like yourself. The solution will arrive when there is no payoff for webmasters, who engage in the practices that you would like to see stop.