WRT the OP, I think the thing to remember is that the rules are different for each player. Once you are established, you can do rather more than a newcomer.
Also, I find more useful metics to be "rate of change" rather than absolute. Getting 10000 backlinks in a month is more likely to be an issue for a site that only got 100 in its first year, compared to one that already has a million.
Then, to echo tedster, there is the fact that most dodgy links are merely discounted. The penalisation of links absolutely does occur- without the FUD, link spam would be even more prolific than it already is.