National social statistics have become one of the pervasive institutions of modern economics and politics. However, less is known about the origins of national accounting and the disagreements over its fundamental purpose and design. Modern national accounts emerged in attempts by German statistical entrepreneurs to understand the industrial economy and harness production in the service of national goals. In the American context national accounts emerged as a means for measuring social welfare, but evolved in the direction of the German and then British efforts at maximizing war production during the Second World War. The origins and evolution of social accounting in the German, British and American contexts illustrate the competing public goals served by our institutional choices. Different normative purposes, driven by new national goals, may require institutional change.