JAMES A. BAKER, the secretary of the Treasury, put a flutter in the hearts of the gold bugs a couple of weeks ago by uttering the sacred word. He said that the price of gold might be one of a number of indicators -- one of a number, mind you -- by which to steer the international economy. Since then he has been doing a brisk business in assurances that he has not lost his marbles and is not embarking on a crusade to return the world to the gold standard.

He has another purpose, and he is right when he says that it is not merely to maneuver in American party politics. That suspicion arises naturally, because the idea of a return to gold has a powerful attraction for some of the sects on the Republicans' far right, where the classic gold standard is more admired than understood. When Mr. Baker got onto this subject, he was not trying primarily to promote the fortunes of George Bush but to address an audience abroad.

For good and urgent reasons, Mr. Baker wants Japan and West Germany to speed up their slow and cautious economic growth rates. He is trying to find a way to persuade them that it won't be inflationary. The Japanese and the Germans now have their inflation rates down just about to zero, and that's extremely popular. Japan has been moving to accelerate growth moderately, but Germany remains adamant.

Here in the United States, if the country is to get its budget deficit under control, demand will have to drop for a while. The Reaganite idea of growing out of the deficit has been pretty thoroughly discredited. The United States can go safely through this transition to a better-balanced budget only if demand abroad rises fast enough to compensate for the drop here. If the leading industrial powers of Europe and the Pacific continue to stagnate, the risk of a worldwide recession rises sharply.

The specialists in Germany and Japan understand that. But there's a widespread fear of inflation there, and policy responds to that anxiety. The Germans especially blame the United States -- not unfairly -- for the inflation of the 1970s. To them, Mr. Baker is saying: Look, as a safety signal, to provide absolute assurance, we'll set up a chart of all the most sensitive commodity prices to warn of trouble -- and if you like we'll even put gold on that chart.

Wild applause from some of the Republicans followed that suggestion. But the response that counts will be the one from overseas